As Alma Winemiller, a WWI-era small-town Mississippi spinster-in-the-making, Geraldine Page flutters, clutches her breast, and otherwise employs the airy mannerisms of a dozen other neurotic Tennessee Williams heroines. In the film version of Summer and Smoke, perhaps the playwright’s most schematic battle of carnality and repression, Page’s Alma (her name is “Spanish for ‘soul,’” she’ll proudly tell anyone) is a minister’s daughter whose singing cameo at the local Fourth of July pageant—she’s billed as “the Nightingale of the Delta”—is followed by her renewed pining for Dr. John Buchanan (Laurence Harvey), a childhood crush and newly returned med-school grad still sowing his wild oats. When Alma watches John ride off in his jalopy with a local Mexican mantrap (Rita Moreno), director Peter Glenville ham-handedly cuts to the holiday fireworks exploding over Alma’s head. And yet Glenville, experienced with the play in his British theater career, compensated for his cinematic shortcomings by letting Page, who had made the role her own Off Broadway a decade earlier, carry the piece. Of the Williams plays adapted without the author’s direct participation, this may be the most rewarding because Page’s performance as the tragically self-denying Alma accumulates power, culminating in a monologue that captures the pitiable character within the nearly comical priss of the early scenes.
Harvey, an intelligent British actor who was a Hollywood commodity for a few short years, initially seems wrong for Page’s fascinated but irregular swain; he hardly possesses the erotic swagger that Marlon Brando and Paul Newman brought to Williams screen tempters, and doesn’t seem the likeliest man to brawl at a cockfight or play the town stud. (The screenplay adds a local gal purring to a friend who wonders if the young doc is home for good, “He’s here for bad!”) But despite his counterintuitive casting as Body opposite Page’s Soul, their scenes together are charged with a fumbling effort at mutual understanding, even the two dialogues they conduct in his examination room on whether love comes from the brain and groin or “somewhere not seen.” It’s mildly wondrous that the two stars manage to escape this looming symbolism that led Williams to originally title the play The Anatomy Chart, but they do emerge as human, particularly when Alma’s inchoate jealousy after she virginally spurns John’s seduction leads to violence and heartbreak.
Summer and Smoke‘s flaws are undeniable; its excesses include a widescreen aesthetic that insists on prettifying the emotionally sordid action, and overuse of Elmer Bernstein’s volatile score at high-pitched emotional peaks, such as when the stinging lines of Alma’s rebuke to her mocking, addled mother (Una Merkel) should need no heightening. Some of the film’s overreaching is Williams’s, as with John’s familiarly stormy relationship with his revered physician father (John McIntire), or the queasy identification of the Mexican characters with easy sex and deadly weapons. But the core of Alma’s final exam by Dr. John, as she painstakingly describes the “death” of her frigid, chaste shell, is delivered by Page with piercing clarity and pathos. Followed up with an unusually generous coda in which Williams offers the possibility of some measure of compromised happiness for Alma, albeit with the assistance of “little white pills,” Page’s humane portrait of helplessness and hard-won self-knowledge achieves the soulfulness its heroine lays claim to.
Aside from some flickering, particularly in the opening titles, the film's widescreen transfer and the splashy period production design look splendid. The mono sound, including Elmer Bernstein's busy, ambitious score, is unspectacular and clear.
A no-frills package for a second-tier Tennessee Williams work, but the play's the thing.