The history of tragedy is in one sense the history of expository inventiveness. After all, one may not need to know much about a man to laugh at his buffoonery or reversals of fortune, but pulling off plausible pathos requires a bit more character background—maybe even an oracular prognostication or two. Much of dramaturgical technique, then, can be read as a response to the ghastly inconvenience of having to set tragic heroes up before one knocks them down in such a way that appears predestined. Do the estate caretakers in Uncle Vanya, for instance, lament at such length to underscore the play’s existential themes, or because Chekov simply needs some way of revealing for how many years they’ve toiled on the same poor family farm? Sophocles, too, withholds key information in Oedipus Rex until the climax, even though multiple omens have spoiled the whole thing for us in tantalizingly general terms; biographical specificity doubles as a plot device. Shakespeare, meanwhile, farmed out exposition to minor characters (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…”) in order to build atmosphere and milieu. And so on.
Eventually this rushed tutorial must reach the American Eugene O’Neill, a much too stylistically intrepid playwright to pin down with a mere glossing of narrative schematic. In his most celebrated works, however, exposition is emotional arsenal: His characters reveal the most about themselves and each other when making ebullient accusations, or else deflecting the fetid blame that’s been belched into their faces. Since this is especially the case with O’Neill’s partly autobiographical triumph Long Day’s Journey into Night, Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film adaptation of the drama is an unsurprisingly successful compromise between the writer’s splenetic use of language and cinema’s demand for visual piquancy.
Both the play and the movie depict a single day in the life of a deeply troubled, middle-class Irish-American family, the Tyrones, every member of which has a practically hollow-tipped past that he or she is unafraid to fire at will. The paterfamilias, James (Ralph Richardson), lives eternally in the shadow of his penurious, half-starved youth and his career as a thespian sellout; his first son, Jamie (an astounding Jason Robards), is also a drunk, and an arrogant loafer. The morphine-addicted lady of the household, Mary (Katharine Hepburn), is riddled with Catholic guilt over her anger toward her youngest son, Edmund (Dean Stockwell), whose difficult birth brokered her introduction to the habit-forming painkiller. And then there’s Edmund himself, a consumptive poet whose coughs are morbid foreshadowing.
These back catalogues of suffering emerge through a series of conversations whose vitriolic nature gradually escalates. The play begins, for example, with a faux-argument over breakfast between husband and wife about the former’s snoring that slowly grows more ominous and biting. This talk is rarely precise and often repetitive throughout due in part to concurrent whisky imbibing, but it’s always bodily expressive and viscerally affective. Long, icy blocks of dialogue are recited unabridged by the cast in mostly single takes over the course of three unrelenting hours, a description that would seem the very definition of mere photographed theater. And yet judicious pans and merciless reverse shots by Lumet and cinematographer Boris Kaufman create a family less comprised of hearts and minds than of furrowed brows, balled fists, dilated pupils, clenched cheeks, and quivering lips continually agitated by vitriol and self-pity. The Tyrones’ dilapidated Connecticut summer home meanwhile becomes a sunny coastal prison rotting from the inside out. While various filial configurations bicker indoors, the camera spins around their feuding bodies, catching details of garish, outdated décor as it goes.
If the play, and the film by extension, has one shortcoming, it’s that the characters have little more than exposition to argue about. Each of the four family members is disappointed with the other three, and him or herself, for having betrayed various familial and personal ideals, and so what we’re watching is a lot of septic reminiscence burble over and harden into chilly crust. (Only Jamie breaks the pattern of bitter meditation with a pathetic story about sleeping with an overweight prostitute, an act that catalyzes his already terminal grief.) But as Hepburn’s tremulous and desperate anti-mother explains, “the past and future are both the present,” which is all the proof we need that these people have become dislodged from time by their corrosive regrets and petty grudges. In O’Neill’s best work, exposition—the past—is so hotly debated and ruminated upon because there’s no future to come and very little present remaining; his characters are crushed by the weight of the failure they’ve accumulated. Long Day’s Journey into Night is thus a three-hour danse macabre, and it suggests that what finally does us all in isn’t the body’s deterioration, but the crippling heaviness of memory.
Here's one Olive Films release for which the lack of extras are a blessing, as the feature-only format has allowed all three hours of Long Day's Journey into Night the highest possible bitrate. And fittingly, the disc holds one of the company's cleaner 1080p transfers. The bold contrast allows strategically placed shadows to be read as phantom threats; the Tyrone household is a minefield full of angst bombs from days gone by, and the danger only increases as the sun goes down. The boost of clarity provided by the high-def resolution also provides an ironic visual counterpoint to the characters' increasingly nebulous consciousnesses. The family may not see the depth of their own flaws clearly through their dependencies on booze and morphine, but we do. André Previn's piano score is entirely too august for the material, but it's not doted on in the expediently dialogue-favoring sound mix.
Now that Long Day's Journey into Night is on Blu-ray, we can finally drink along with the characters in the safety of our own homes.