HOT SPELL doesn’t exactly cast one, thanks to the way it’s set, photographed and directed, but it maintains fleeting interest due to the valiant efforts of the actors, struggling against and often overcoming the flat, pat and stagy handling. It also feels instantly and rather tiredly familiar, in part from casting (no fault of the actors), more from a been-there sense imparted by its over-thrashed milieu, America’s sweaty postwar cousin, Southern Gothic drama. *
Frumpy, kindly, and naive, middle-aged ‘Alma Duval’ (Shirley Booth) exists in a mix of misery and denial over her lifeless marriage to a domineering, philandering husband (Anthony Quinn). Ignored or bullied by the father, their restive, stifled, grown children (Shirley MacLaine, Earl Holliman and Clint Kimbrough) can see what she won’t, and each of the five get various blurt-hurt scenes over 86 minutes.
The script by James Poe (taken from Lonnie Coleman’s unproduced play, Next Of Kin) has some good language comforting its wounded sensitivity, and the disintegration of the family has built-in pathos, but producer Hal B. Wallis doesn’t open it up budget-wise to breathe (the Louisiana setting is hardly evoked by the sets and obvious California outdoor locations—bayous with hills?) and director Daniel Mann further works to remind you of its play origins with a static visual take and by having the cast rush the dialogue—it’s one of those bring-the-passions-to-boil schematics where characters run through six levels of emotion in the course of a few pages. After principal work was done, Wallis, arguing with Mann, fired him and George Cukor, who had just guided Quinn in Wild Is The Wind (lusty Italian in that one) was brought in to doctor it up some, uncredited. The cast sees it through.
It’s another feather in the cap for the great Shirley Booth, even though her sweet but too-dim Alma seems a variation on her roles in Come Back, Little Sheba and About Mrs. Leslie (both directed by Mann). One of the unlikeliest of leading ladies, the 59-year old actress did The Matchmaker that same year, her last of only five movie appearances. That one, a romantic comedy (later ruined as Hello, Dolly!) also-co-starred a fresh and energetic MacLaine, having her breakout year at 23, getting plaudits for the amusing western The Sheepman and raves as well as an Oscar nomination for Some Came Running. Quinn, 17 years Booth’s junior as her hemmed-in tomcat, goes ethnic again—here as a Cajun—but he dials his Bigness down enough to keep a lid on noise. Holliman, at 29 in his 18th film role, finally gets to play a young guy who’s not a boob or target–and he’s very good. Kimbrough, 24, is okay in his debut. He’d had success on stage but his film and TV career never blossomed. There’s a welcome slice of supporting juice from Eileen Heckart.
Neglected among the years other, flashier films in the same vein, this came in 83rd place, and rests in understandable if undeserved obscurity today, worth a look for the acting. It’s also one of the earlier looks at co-dependency (MacLaine’s mirror of Booth) and the use of food indulgence as a coping mechanism.
With Warren Stevens, Harlan Warde and Valerie Allen, a sexy brunette knockout playing Quinn’s paramour. Resembling Ava Gardner, Allen, like Kimbrough, for some reason never really took off.
* A confluence of repressed themes of Class, Race and S-E-X, conveniently shoehorned into a scapegoated and defensive region, the Southern Gothic slice of American cultural pie (pecan?) had been around for a while (a stellar example would be The Little Foxes). It burgeoned in the now-that-we-fought-for-it,what-have-we-got? worm can kicked over by WW2, steaming into prominence with the passions of A Streetcar Named Desire. Was it the sensual allure of accents, languorously suggestive and insinuating? The link to basic hothouse nature—bugs and swamps and perspiration-sopped clothes? The coincidental rise of liberating rock’n’ roll, riffing out of Dixie juke joints and jamborees, personified by down-home Elvis? The snooty East, stifled Midwest and the carefree West Coast folks perhaps exorcised some of their own demons while gawking at the South. Screen doors swung open on The Night Of The Hunter, Baby Doll, Written On The Wind, The Fugitive Kind, Suddenly Last Summer, The Sound And The Fury, Sanctuary, Sweet Bird Of Youth and Walk On The Wild Side . In 1958 alone, the family arguments of Hot Spell had to fan for ice tea against Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, God’s Little Acre, King Creole, The Long Hot Summer and The Tarnished Angels. Hellfire, boy, throw in The Defiant Ones and Thunder Road. The screenwriter of Hot Spell, James Poe, seemed to have a gift for the material as he manned the scripts for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Sanctuary and Summer and Smoke.
** Shirley Booth: “Acting is a way to overcome your own inhibitions and shyness. The writer creates a strong, confident personality, and that’s what you become – unfortunately, only for the moment.”