Sidney Lumet was at a crossroads when he was making Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1962. He was then still making “prestige pictures,” and this would be the last of his early-period pictures, with 12 Angry Men being the only true masterpiece. They all came out of his live TV and Off-Broadway work, and were often filmed plays. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is no exception. His next two films, The Pawnbroker and Fail-Safe, would show Lumet becoming increasingly more comfortable in the medium of cinema and trying out some startling experimentation, especially in the climax of Fail-Safe.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night came into being because Sidney Lumet made a highly regarded television version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh as National Educational Television Play of the Week, with Jason Robards in the lead role of Hickey. It was Robards’ signature role, and would even end up having some parallels to his own life. Robards reunited with Lumet here in the role of James Tyrone, Jr., and due to the success of their previous collaboration, O’Neill’s widow granted Lumet the rights to Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Robards was the only one in the film who had performed it onstage, and it shows—it’s clear that he knows the play like the back of his hand. I personally think The Iceman Cometh is a much better play, but Long Day’s Journey Into Night is often considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, so naturally they Lumet wanted to tackle it.
The film present what was clearly a veiled take on Eugene O’Neill’s own family: a family drama set in one day as tensions and family problems come to the fore. Various issues ranging from drug and alcohol abuse, illness, etc. come up, although not much actually happens in terms of a big event. It obviously has a great cast, with veteran British actor Ralph Richardson as the head of the family, Katherine Hepburn, as his wife, and Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell as their sons. The resentment from the sons towards the parents is on full show here. Stockwell is totally doing a Montgomery Clift impersonation here (you can imagine Clift in that role, although he would have been too old for it by the time this was made). It’s a good play, and has not been adapted in any fashion for the screen, which makes it even more stagey than it already is. It is literally a filmed play. Sometimes that works, as in the case of the Frankenheimer version of The Iceman Cometh (The Lumet version is hard to find now), but in this case the action is confined to one location. It’s an interesting film, also because it marks the end of this phase of Lumet’s career, just before he became a major filmmaker. Fail-Safe—which was made into a live TV play decades later—does retain some of the stage feel.
Hepburn was the only one of the main cast members to gain an Oscar nomination for the film, but the four main cast members collectively won a Best Actor award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Despite Robards’ experience of having played the role onstage, he was the second choice—Marlon Brando was offered it first, but turned it down. He might have still been working on One-Eyed Jacks at the time, and was already starting to move away from doing stage adaptations.
The disc from Eureka is the most extras-packed in the world for the film, and includes a commentary track from film historian Scott Harrison, an audio essay on Lumet’s stage adaptations, the theatrical trailer, and finally the booklet includes new essays on the film from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Philip Kemp.