August is half-way over, and the end of summer is in sight. And here in Chicago, at least, the summer is only just finally ramping up to its full temperature possibilities. So it seemed like there wasn’t a better time to pay tribute to those movies that best encapsulate the heat of summertime.
The Top Ten Movies About Hot Summer Days (and Nights)
10. Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975)
Hell, I had to: “dog day” is right there in the title! But it’s not just for the sake of being cute that I’ve dropped Lumet’s true-crime classic here. Set on a hot New York day in August 1972, the film captures a certain kind of urban sweltering rather perfectly: the way that when you’re stuck outside in the sun, and it never seems to get any shadier or cooler, and the sun seems to be radiating out of the very pavement. The film wouldn’t be have as effective it it took place on, I don’t know, a cool day in October: a good part of the tension between Al Pacino and the cops waiting to arrest him is the way that unforgiving heat can make everybody that much crankier.
9. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954)
Well, okay, it doesn’t really seem that much like a sweltering New York apartment courtyard: though Hitch had many great talents, one of them was never the ability to make a film set look like it wasn’t a film set. And the idea of Grace Kelly with a bead of sweat anywhere on her immaculate person is as hard to imagine as snow falling in the Sahara. But even so, this movie about voyeurism benefits from the perfect observation about how people try to combat the heat: sleeping outdoors, wearing next to nothing, and so forth. And there’s Jimmy Stewart’s perfect performance as a man who can’t do anything to beat the heat: stuck inside that itchy, sweaty cast, with only a wimpy fan to do anything in the way of comfort. The film also boasts Thelma Ritter delivering one of the all-time great quips about the weather: “You’d think the rain would’ve cooled things down. All it did was make the heat wet.”
8. Persona (Bergman, 1966)
True, even the dead of summer on a small island in Sweden can’t really be all that “hot”, especially under the gaze of a notoriously chilly filmmaker like Ingmar Bergman. But there’s something about the way he films this story about two women in a cottage miles from any other human beings, that makes the summer seem as oppressive as any other filmmaker has even dreamt of: that constant, harsh sunlight that doesn’t even go away in the middle of the night, making every surface of every rock seem as miserable and craggy as the floor of Hell. It might not be deathly hot, but by God, it’s harsh and unpleasant.
7. The Seven Year Itch (Wilder, 1955)
Another film that doesn’t try to disguise the soundstaginess of its soundstages, but tell me: has there every been another film to craft such a beautiful paean to the joys of air conditioning? And not just as a comfort, but even an erotic stimulus, thanks to a marvelous performance by Marilyn Monroe, who greats the arrival of any break from the unendurable city heat with nearly orgasmic elation. Even the warm updraft from the subway is cause for sexually-laden celebration in Billy Wilder’s tale of marital near-infidelity in the days when wives and kids went upstate for the summer; one of the cinema’s best and funniest attempts to link hot weather with sexual ardor ever.
6. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Leone, 1966)
There’s no heat exactly like the heat in the American Southwest, and the film to best capture the feeling was shot in Spain, by an Italian. Ah, globalism! But this most sweltering of all Westerns, dislocated or not, still manages to perfectly depict that peculiar feeling of being tens of hundreds of miles from anyplace nice on God’s earth, in bone-dry heat that feels like an oven. Of course, since TG,TB,TU is basically set in an Earthly version of Hell itself, it makes sense that it would be hot and arid and essentially unlivable. Sun and sand and desert scrub, as far as the Panavision frame can see; yes, that is what I remember my trips to Nevada and Arizona feeling like.
5. George Washington (Green, 2000)
Everything else on this list is about heat as a punishment, a trap; but it can also be a blanket, creating a mood that’s more drowsy than wicked. And that is exactly the mood of David Gordon Green’s spectacular debut, an observational work of the finest poetic style, inspired by the work of no less than Terrence Malick. Green went to school in the very same corner of North Carolina where he set this feature, and he seemingly poured every moment of year of observing the place and the people into capturing the exact texture of summer in the South: sunny and muggy, shady and sleepy, where time itself slows down as it tries to wade through the intensely hot, damp air.
4. American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973)
It’s hard to remember now, but George Lucas wasn’t just a good filmmaker once, but an incredibly gifted one. Here, for example, he captured the feel of a late summer night in documentary-esque detail: the way the light moves through the air as it cools down after baking all day, the way that sound streches out for miles like it never does any other time of year. The exact form that summer fun took in 1962, as depicted here, may be long since dead and gone, but the feeling of being out on a summer night with friends, just hanging out – that is eternal, and American Graffiti captures it in every nuance.
3. Night of the Iguana (Huston, 1964)
It’s not the heat – it’s definitely the humidity in this sweat-soaked tale of doomed eroticism in Mexico. Tennessee Williams seemingly made a cottage industry of setting plays in steamy locales – see also A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – but of all the film adaptations of his work, this is the one that makes the heat so palpable and omnipresent that it almost makes you want to take a nice cool shower after you’ve finished watching it. Kudos to John Huston, a director who never shied away from making things seem grimier than they had to be, for the keen sense of place that gives Iguana such a muggy, suffocating air.
2. Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989)
Spike Lee will see Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and raise it. Never before, never since, has a movie captured the heat of the city in the summer with the same destructive energy that we see on display here. Just the colors are unbearable hot in this film, and all the water being splashed this way and that somehow makes everything seem that much more overbearing. Of course, the film had to sell its incredibly damn hot vision for everything else to work: the story could only take place with the characters made so uncomfortable and pissed-off about it that every other consideration of fake politeness goes out the window. When it’s this hot, you just beg for a fight, and Spike Lee engineered a real doozy for the character suffering in this particular corner of boiling pavement and piercing sunlight.
1. Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949)
The first of the director’s collaborations with his greatest star, Mifune Toshiro, ought to be regarded among his best films; a distinction that generally evades it. No matter. We who’ve seen it know how awe-inspiring it is, and not least because of the physical sense of heat radiating right off the screen in every single shot. Filmed in blinding black-and-white, it seems like there’s not a corner of this post-war city that hasn’t been infiltrated by a heat so aggressive it practically counts as a character. Images of people desperately trying to beat the weather are everywhere, but it’s mostly just gilding the lily after a point: the shot of Mifune’s sweaty, tired face tells us all we need to know about how unbearable life is in this place, at this time.