Outstanding adaptation of a Tennessee Williams drama. Both Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey give nuanced performances as the star-crossed Alma and Johnny. Though a long movie, the pacing rarely slows down. The plot is relatively simple, but works out in a meandering way. It’s true that, as some say, the atmosphere ‘glistens.’ We’re decidedly in 1916; a thoroughly-washed 1916, but not without its stubborn, seamy spots. Strangely for a romance, most of the memorable scenes are at night.
Alma and Johnny are complete opposites. She’s withdrawn, aloof, hanging on to what appears to be a destiny of spinsterhood. He’s worldly and more or less a playboy. Johnny can’t control his emotions; Alma seems not to have any. The only thing they have in common is distant, Puritanical fathers. The main distraction is Johnny’s obsession for Rosa (Rita Moreno). Although she basically satisfies his libido, he never really can love her; he figures she’s essentially a gold-digger. But it takes a lot of gambling, boozing, cockfighting, and a ‘Roman orgy’ (as Alma’s father puts it) for Johnny to figure this out.
Despite the fact that Alma prudishly ‘tells’ on him so that Johnny’s dad comes upon the ‘orgy’/party, which ends up in his dad’s deadly fight, Johnny benefits in the long run. He’s disgusted by Rosa, and, deeply affected by his father’s death, he literally as well as emotionally sobers up. He hasn’t so much switched personalities with Alma, as “settled”, as he puts it. His engagement to Nellie, younger but sincere and lively, shows how convention suits him after all; Nellie is, nonetheless, the complete counterpoint to Alma. Incongruously, Alma takes a walk on the wild side, going off to the casino–den of iniquity that it is–with a traveling salesman. She abandons the safe spot the park represents.
The park, and particularly the statue, are central images. The statue represents permanence–Eternity is an apt name for it. Also, it’s not merely a statue, it’s an angel; even symbolically it’s other-worldly. Nonetheless, it’s also a spring. Like Alma, it’s artificial, but has a life-affirming power (water, in the statue’s case). In the remarkable first scene, in effect a flashback to Alma’s and Johnny’s childhood, she’s already stuck there; standing apart from the other kids, not participating in the festive Halloween. Even as a kid, Johnny’s fascinated by her.
It’s surprising that she’s even noticed, as she has a way of blending in to her surroundings. This is notable in all of her scenes at the statue, and also in Johnny’s office, when she does her best to throw herself at him, only to discover that it’s too late. She’ll likely end up like her mom: fragile, and mentally-impaired. Alma’s apparent drug addiction seems to point toward instability as well. It’s frightening that her dad seems to sheath himself in self-righteousness, but is at the center of a completely dysfunction family.
Everything’s of a piece here. Some think that Laurence Harvey is too slick as Johnny–he seems just about right to me, especially since he can be believable both as a playboy and as a serious, mature doctor. The only oddity is his slicked-back hair (that only works in the era that the film was made). The sets are beautiful; they did a lot with bandstands, gazebos, trees, and lanterns–not to mention the statue. This is one film that had to be in color. Both the look and the feel of Summer And Smoke is haunting and nostalgic. Highly recommended. 9/10.