Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Sidney Lumet
There are some pieces of art that, when you finally experience them, you know you’ve seen or read, or heard something that will resonate through centuries. I had never read a word of Eugene O’Neill, but I knew a bit about him and that he’d written this play and The Iceman Cometh, among others. I could have told you this was about a family of four people. That was where my knowledge stopped. I knew this would have to be a part of this series on film adaptations of American theater, and now I understand why it had to be. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is among the best I’ve ever seen. I’m talking about the entire scale of art in general. This movie connected with me in a way a lot of contemporary cinema fails to over & over again. I credit that to the bravery of O’Neill in writing genuinely human characters. Everyone is a villain here, everyone is a hero, and everyone’s a victim, and in this way, it mirrors all our lives.
Told over a single day, the film follows the four members of the Tyrone family as tensions boil over and they become brutally honest with each other about the past. James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson) is the patriarch whose acting career became so connected with a single role that he could never successfully play anything else. His prominence in reprising this role again & again did provide the family with a healthy income to sustain them. His wife, Mary (Katherine Hepburn), has recently returned from getting treatment for her morphine addiction. She’s suffering from insomnia and manic-depressive episodes; Mary’s sanity exists on a razor’s edge.
The Tyrones have two adult sons: Jamie (Jason Robards) has bounced around the world, taking little jobs here & there, spending his money on booze & sex workers. The youngest, Edmund (Dean Stockwell), worries about his mother constantly, waking up and hearing her shuffle about the house in the middle of the night. In addition, he has problems with a persistent cough and fatigue, which the family fears is a sign of tuberculosis. Over the day, family members square off with each other in confrontational conversations about their disappointments, sense of betrayal, and general mourning of the lives that could have been if not for…well, everything that happened to them.
I haven’t seen nearly enough Katherine Hepburn movies; in fact, I’ve seen three (this one, Bringing Up Baby, and On Golden Pond), and this one has set the bar so high for me that I can’t imagine any other role I see her in could live up to it. Hepburn can capture the intense pain of being a woman in a time & place where she had no real agency. Her options when she came to the crossroads of beginning her adult life were to become a nun and live in a convent or marry James and be known as his wife. Mary does genuinely love James, but that doesn’t soften the reality that she ended up being no one, a hollow shell. Mary laments that she has no friends and lives in this lovely house by the lake, with not even dinner parties to look forward to. Mary’s life is just existence without purpose. The morphine at least let her disassociate from this fact. Now that’s gone, and the world around her is coming into focus. It’s terrifying how alone and meaningless it all is for her.
We eventually learn that there was a third Tyrone child between Jamie and Edmund. They died in infancy when James insisted Mary join him on the road as he toured performing. Jamie and the other baby were left at home, and the baby died. Mary verbalizes her suspicions which seem to be the truth, that Jamie suffocated the baby to death when their guardians were absent. This belief has idled in her mind for decades and informs her quiet resentment of her eldest son. Now, the family is confronted with the fact that Edmund very likely has a disease that could turn out fatal. This revisitation of death reactivates the old pain for Mary, and it is becoming more than she can bear.
Jamie is the one character who remains the most distant from the audience until nearly the end of the play. He’s extremely tortured, roiling with spite & anger toward the whole damn world. He’s close & chummy with Edmund but even that crumbles in the story’s final act. There’s a revelation of how Jamie compulsively desires to ruin Edmund’s life and that even though he understands this to be wrong, he can’t stop himself. Jamie has to destroy his brother as an act of obscene protest against their father.
James is the least sympathetic person, yet he’s still not devoid of humanity. He’s at first positioned as a miser, unwilling to share the wealth meaningfully with his sons. We learn that James has a lot of his money tied up in real estate deals with a friend that screwed him before. Edmund confronts his father late at night, and we hear James’ story. He talks about a childhood of abject poverty that marked him; it made him hoard his money and fear losing it all the time. James admits that there was a point he realized he hated acting, but he stayed at it because he could just do it without thinking, and it made him good money. In this conversation, we see a connection as Edmund shares his feelings about being an aspiring poet, and now, with his mortality so stark before him, those dreams feel dead already.
Every character is stuck in a loop; all they can do is observe each other or lash out when anger boils over. It is both easy to live life on repeat but also spiritually draining. This isn’t living so much as it is existing. The boys grow tired of their father’s obsession with unscrewing all the lightbulbs in the house to save a few pennies here & there. They say they love their mother but, in front of her face, refer to the woman as “a dope fiend.” James regularly voices his disappointment in Jamie, which fuels his eldest son’s penchant for self-destruction. Mary is cold & distant from Jamie while hugging Edmund close to her.
Layered on top of this perfect piece of writing are director Sidney Lumet’s decisions on blocking and cinematography. It’s hard to present Long Day’s Journey without being stagey, and this sometimes feels like a filmed play. However, Lumet cleverly seeks moments to inject the story with cinematic elements. The final speech of the picture delivered by Hepburn is one of the best examples, with all the lights out except for a spotlight on Mary. The camera slowly zooms out, turning her into the smallest point of light on the screen before a hard cut to an extreme close-up as she gives the play’s last lines.
Those choices add depth to a piece of literature overflowing with rich character work. Mary’s final words speak to the origin of all this domestic misery, the summer she fell in love with James. Lumet cuts to each man’s face, silent & mournful. Then back to the extremely distant shot. The light goes out on Mary, and all we see and hear is the dirge of the lighthouse a few miles offshore, its horn a weak howl into the void. One of the most perfect movies I’ve had the pleasure of viewing, and it will stay with me.