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Long Day's Journey Into Night
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by Jay Seaver

"A fine film that plays like a fine play."
4 stars

There's no screenplay credit on "Long Day's Journey Into Night", not out of shame, but because director Sidney Lumet and his small cast basically shot Eugene O'Neill's play in its entirety, and apparently nobody felt that the details of staging it and adding what movements couldn't be done on stage merited being labeled a co-writer. Despite that, it doesn't feel like an early precursor to the stage productions digitally broadcast to theaters today. It's a genuine movie; just one that doesn't hide its origins.

It chronicles a day in the life of the Tyrone family, their first together at the beach house one summer, which is fraught with more danger than such things typically are. Mother Mary (Katharine Hepburn), you see, is just back from another stay at the clinic to try and kick her morphine addiction, which has her husband James (Ralph Richardson) keeping watch to make sure she doesn't backslide. Their older son Jamie (Jason Robards) is a layabout, occasionally making half-hearted attempts to follow his father onto the stage, while younger son Edmund (Dean Stockwell) has health problems of his own. News on those will come from a doctor's appointment scheduled for later in the afternoon, but nobody wants to talk about it, keeping the whole family on edge.

Film and theater are quite different things, even if they are often made by the same people from the same material. The scale of theater is fixed and the boundaries on its reality are clearly visible enough that other forms of artifice are not just forgiven but natural. Cameras and cuts, with their ability to instantly change locations and perspectives, mean that film directors don't have to compensate the way stage directors and actors do. For most plays, the filmmaker faces either the prospect of losing someone's favorite part or building something that just doesn't work as a movie.

Long Day's Journey mostly avoids these issues; while the dialogue is clearly theatrical and delivered in a somewhat mannered fashion, it is seldom if ever redundant, nor does it refer to things that are happening just off-screen. Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman shoot the picture like a movie, getting in close enough to see the looks on the actors' faces, following them as they move around the set, and letting what the audience see of the neighborhood hint at both unavoidably physical isolation and deliberate withdrawal from people nearby. It's still structured like a play, though, in that individual scenes often feel like a sort of relay race - things will start with two people, who chat a while, then a third will enter while one of the original two leaves, and then maybe a fourth person will join them and that will go on a while, until it's time to make a substantial jump in time.

That's a fair amount of work for the cast (though likely nothing compared to performing on stage!), but it's a fine one. Katharine Hepburn gives one of the very best performances in a storied career as Mary, making the mother feel prematurely aged, but not because she's broken down; in fact, she seems more hollowed out than anything else. Mary's pitiable and pathetic, but for all that, she does seem to get pure blissful relief from her addiction. Ralph Richardson meanwhile manages to make James Senior theatrical without playing to the rafters. He's a small man of big gestures, but wonderful at telling a story in-character. Interestingly, the younger actors both go for a more naturalistic performances; where both Hepburn and Richardson tend to orate, Robards and Stockwell converse. The pair complement each other nicely, with Stockwell able to make fear, calm, and timidity different facets of the same attitude as the scene calls for it, while Robards makes Jamie the possessor of what little common sense this family has , which is saying something because he's also a boor who frequently slips out of control. Every pairing or larger grouping shows a family dysfunctional enough to be a complete mess but too devoted to each other to properly rip itself apart.

As a theatrical/cinematic hybrid, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" can be an odd way to spend nearly three hour (more, if the place screening it gives a full intermission). It's interesting, though, a rare case of a production that works as a movie without giving up the feel of a play, thanks in large part to a tight cast.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=23307&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/10/12 15:55:52
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USA
  09-Oct-1962
  DVD: 11-Mar-2004

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