Title: Summer and Smoke
Language: English, Spanish
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Peter Glenville
Screenplay: James Poe, Meade Roberts
based on the play of Tennessee Williams
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Charles Lang
A sultry, clammy celluloid adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ searing gender study SUMMER AND SMOKE directed by the UK thespian-turned-stage-regisseur Peter Glenville (his third feature film). Living in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the early 20th century, Alma Winemiller (Page, parlays her stage success into cinema), a minister’s daughter, has been carrying a torch for her neighbor John Buchanan, Jr. (Harvey) ever since she was a little girl.
Weaned on a puritanical upbringing and encumbered with a kleptomaniac mother (Merkel, facing off grandly with a full-throttle Page, and is given a career-commemorating Oscar nomination) who is off her trolleys, a maiden Alma dreads that her youth will soon get shrouded into spinsterhood. One summer, when Johnny, now a medical practitioner like his father (McIntire), the prodigal son returns to Glorious Hill, Alma’s feelings for him are rekindled, but for a gadabout Johnny, Alma’s modesty cannot rival the exotic allure of Rosa Zacharias (Moreno, oozing strangely touching empathy in her feral presence), a wild Mexican girl who revels in their carnal knowledge, and affectionately admits that he smells really good, their liaison is basically corporeal but there is candor in it.
Be that as it may, Johnny is not at all chaste towards Alma, but makes a blunder when he tries to liberate her torrid soul (Alma means “soul” in Spanish) from her prissy manacles. A consequential tragedy further drifts them away (from our vintage point, Alma is quite blameless for its unexpected but vacuous fallout) but subliminally the disparity between them starts to squarely influence their respective perspectives about themselves (although in Johnny’s case, his metamorphosis is obviously more associated with his personal loss).
Therefore, emboldened by a trading-places scenario, the drama takes a heart-rending turn in the “right people, but wrong time” finale, which bestows Ms. Page a crowning showpiece of self-liberation mingled with a smorgasbord of emotions, her rejoicing aspiration, segueing to a heart-opening tête-à-tête, then following by revealing dismay and heartbreaking, the karma is holy stiltedly designed, but Ms. Page’s flair holds its own when her southern mannerism is sublimated into something like a tenable institution, a flesh-and-blood being. Laurence Harvey, on the other hand, beautifully plays out his raffishness and ekes out sensitive gesticulations incessantly, but most of the time, he keeps Johnny’s morality ambiguous.
In company with Elmer Bernstein’s bespoke score measuring up protagonists’ internal flickers, SUMMER AND SMOKE is humble in its material construction but a deep-fish psychological balancing art between two polarized species inhabiting in the same biome, a bone-fide heart-string-tugger among Mr. Williams’ canon.