Long Day’s Journey into Night is available to rent now on Apple TV.
Films that take place in one location, with a limited number of actors, are a true testament to the power of cinema. These films have a much harder time pulling in audiences due to their limited creative resources, relying heavily on a solid screenplay, great acting and innovative cinematography. Many of the classic chamber piece films we love originate from theatrical plays. Their limited use of space and heavy dependence on the actors’ performances create an intimate space that sucks us in and doesn’t let us go.
Sidney Lumet is probably best known for the political and social dramas he brought to the screen, for example, Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Or for his directorial debut, 12 Angry Men (1957). However, one of his least-known yet brilliant works is a word-to-word adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s stage play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Lumet was no stranger to stage productions, directing the star-studded The Fugitive Kind (1959), based on Tennessee William’s Orpheus Descending and Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge (1962). At the same time, 12 Angry Men had also initially been a teleplay.
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Long Day’s Journey Into Night is often considered one of the greatest pieces of American literature and O’Neill’s magnum opus. The semi-autobiographical play concerns the Tyrone family, including parents James and Mary and their two sons, Jamie and Edmund. The story takes place over one long day in the summer of 1912; It’s narrative reminiscent of a classical Greek tragedy, as it deals with the dysfunctional relationship between all four family members. Here each character is dealing with their own failures and unfulfilled hopes while remaining unable to accept their flaws.
James (Ralph Richardson) is an ageing actor who is constantly miserable—spending his days looking back on his life with resentment due to his typecasting. And while his career has served him and his family well, he still regularly worries about ending up in the poorhouse due to his childhood of poverty in Ireland. Meanwhile, Mary (Katharine Hepburn) has just returned from a sanatorium where she received treatment for morphine addiction, her reliance on the drug forged through complicated childbirth – for which she still blames James and the doctor he hired. Mary is also overprotective of their younger son, Edmund (Dean Stockwell). But, to add to the family complexity, older brother Jamie (Jason Robards) is also a failed actor with a hedonistic lifestyle that has led to alcoholism. He resents his father and younger brother Edmund, who Mary favours.
As the family anxiously awaits Edmund’s tuberculosis result, he suffers from the early signs of pneumonia, only making Mary even more distressed. But, as the family wait, past wounds start to bubble to the surface. But, can they resolve the traumas that haunt their relationships or is their family unit intrinsically broken.
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Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a heady film that gains its unique power from transcending its initial premise. Here, one family’s problems become a more profound dialogue on social issues ranging from solitude to addiction and isolation. While at the same time, these themes are wrapped in a bow of generational change that would become standard in many 60s movies. Lumet’s film is full of poetic monologues that further isolate our characters—their interactions, built on individualistic dialogue rather than an ability to listen and care. Apart from the few outside shots of the porch and garden at the beginning, the plot takes place within the house. Here the family slowly withdraws from the outside world as they merge into the darkness of the building—the titular “Night” reflecting the twilight of their psyche.
The setting is almost exclusively limited to the ground floor living room without even visiting the upstairs. This minimal choice of location allows the script to embrace its theatrical roots. Yet, the creative camerawork ensures we are not simply watching a recorded stage play. Here, the black and white cinematography and frequent use of unusual angles create a haunted house effect that is further emphasised by the shots of Mary’s ghost-like figure wandering through the rooms in delirium, wearing a long white gown. In addition, the thick fog and the deliberately unsettling foghorn intensify the gloomy and melancholy atmosphere creating an uneasy feeling that stays with the audience.
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The result is undeniably one of the most powerful, intense and authentic theatrical adaptations of all time. However, O’Neill’s brilliant play and Lumet’s visionary direction do not exist in isolation. Long Day’s Journey into Night is as much about its performances as the writing and direction, just like all the best theatre. Here, each actor captures the duality of their characters with perfection by simultaneously managing to gain the audiences’ sympathy and scorn as they drive each other toward self-destruction.
Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards are outstanding as the miserable father-son duo – the latter repeating the role he had also played on stage, their performances full of profound emotional energy and tenderness. Meanwhile, while often written off as the least complex character of the piece, Dean Stockwell beautifully plays the part of a tragic young man broken by family division. Yet, make no mistake, this is Katharine Hepburn’s film.
Mary’s character is the essence of this story. Hepburn’s fragile, ghost-like figure with trembling hands and tragic melancholia is painfully realistic. While Hepburn holds the record for winning four Best Leading Actress Academy Awards, this is genuinely her role of a lifetime and possibly her most challenging and emotionally exhausting. Her talent especially shines through once we look back on the parts she is more famous for, like the ditzy Susan from Bringing Up Baby (1938) or the posh socialite Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story (1940). The range of characters she manages to display is flawlessly incredible, with Long Day’s Journey into Night at the forefront of her acting abilities.
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Interestingly, some meta-level criticism can be found in the play. The characters have all tried to make a living in the arts industry; James and Jamie as actors, Mary as a pianist and Edmund as a poet. They are all in different stages of their lives yet cannot acquire a livelihood from their passion, except for James, who ends up hating himself and looks back at his career with disdain.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an extraordinarily harsh and subversive example of the traditional American family and the American dream often portrayed in Hollywood narratives. Yet, there is still hope in the final shot as the camera slowly pans out into the darkness, the Tyrone family sitting in silence, illuminated by a source of light. While the play is undoubtedly a landmark in American theatre, the film is one of those exceptional examples of cinematic history where everything lined up perfectly to create a masterpiece.