Ben Quick (Newman) is a handsome and confident young man with ambitions to rise above his current condition in life. Unfortunately, he comes from a family with a..."reputation"...that leads the people of his hometown to accuse him of barn-burning (a revenge tactic that was common in the 1950s South, and a good way to get yourself lynched). Ben does not deny or confirm the townspeople's accusations, but he agrees to leave when they cannot find enough proof to convict him. He becomes a drifter, wandering the humid environment of Mississippi just as the Summer starts. After weeks of travel, he hitches a ride with two women driving into the nearby town of Frenchman's Bend: Clara Varner (Woodward) and her sister-in-law, Eula (Lee Remick). The latter is a gorgeous Southern Belle with a flirtatious and easy-going nature, freely chatting with Ben about everything under the sun. The former is serious-minded and seems totally immune to Ben's charm. She cooly dumps him in the middle of town and drives off, content to never see him again. But we all know the chances of that happening...
As Ben soon finds out, practically the entire town is owned by Will Varner (Welles), Clara's widowed father. Will takes an instant liking to Ben, who refuses to kowtow to the wealthy landowner. Will sees in Ben a younger version of himself, with his ruthless ambition and easy confidence, something sorely lacking in his only son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa).
Will is also disappointed by his daughter Clara, who works as a local schoolteacher and is still single. Her only prospect is a local blue-blood named Alan... who is also a complete Momma's Boy. Determined to rejuvenate his family line with some stronger blood, Will comes up with a plan: to marry Clara and Ben before the Summer is over. Ben is game after Will offers him loads of cash. Clara, on the other hand, is not happy with the arrangement. Meanwhile, Will is under pressure from his mistress, Minnie Littlejohn (Angela Lansbury), to go ahead and tie the knot.
Based on a compilation of stories by William Faulkner, particularly "The Hamlet", the film became a hit thanks to its well-written, sultry dialogue and the romantic chemistry of the two leads, Newman and Woodward (who married soon after filming was completed).
Was remade twice for television, in 1965 and again in 1985, with the latter receiving two Emmy nominations.
This film contains examples of:
- Arranged Marriage: Will tries to do this with Clara. Though he makes it clear that while she doesn't have to marry Ben if she doesn't want to, she does have to marry somebody.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Clara can't stand Ben at first and insults him freely, but the temptation to just give in is definitely there.
- Big Fancy House: The Varners live in the biggest house in town.
- Break the Haughty: Ben sees this as his challenge with Clara. The trope gets turned on him later, though.
- Deadpan Snarker: Clara and Ben compete for first prize on this one.
- Defrosting Ice Queen: Clara begins to warm up to Ben at the very end of the film.
- Dreadful Musician: Clara's friend Agnes sucks at singing. So, so much...
- Female Gaze: At a time when the male gaze was so rampant in film, the scene on the balcony was a terrific reversal.
- Happily Married: Jody and Eula, though it drives him insane that the rest of the boys in town are in love with is wife as well.
- Heat Wave: As the title suggests. No shock, it's Mississippi in the middle of the summer.
- Heel Realization: Both Jody and Will have these.
- Jody comes to realize what he's becoming when he leaves his father to die in a stable he set on fire.
- Before all that, Will begins to have this when Jody realized he got duped by Ben in an attempt to get rich, and after being saved from a fire his son started he acknowledges how cruel he was to both Jody and Clara when he's saved.
- I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Ben isn't really phased by Clara's constant rejection.
- Inadequate Inheritor: Jody just can't live up to his father's expectations.
- I Want GrandkidsWill Varner: You and Jody and Jody's kids and yours and their kids, my descendants, sister, a line, a long line with my face stamped on 'em, my blood flowing in their veins.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Ben isn't so much a jerk as he is ambitious, and he sees Clara as his means of rising above his station in life. He eventually realizes what backward thinking this is.
- Large Ham: Hoo boy, Orson Welles. His southern drawl and fake nose alone was enough to Chew the Scenery to shreds.
- Loners Are Freaks: Why everyone assumes that Ben is a barn burner. See also Malicious Slander.
- Marry for Love: Clara expresses her desire for this.
- Miss Kitty: Minnie, Will's mistress.
- Nice to the Waiter: This is the Deep South in the 1950's, so it's not hard to believe that the Varners have black servants working for them. However, Will never talks down to Lucius, the butler, and even laughs with him. Ben is likewise amiable with the help.
- Once Done, Never Forgotten: The Quick family just can't seem to shake their reputation of being barn burners. Ben in particular gets run out of town based on circumstantial evidence alone (read: he was in town when his accuser's barn burned to the ground) before the opening credits even get a chance to start.
- Pyromaniac: Ben is accused of being a "barn burner." A Southern term and phenomenon, it means someone who will exact revenge for a real or perceived injustice or slight by setting fire to his antagonist's barn, or other outbuilding if the barn isn't accessible.
- Sanity Slippage: Jody begins to have this as soon as Will starts pitting him against Ben and thanks to his father's verbal abuse throughout the film. Jody hits his breaking point right after he got duped by Ben, only for him to snap back into sanity when he frees his father from a barn fire he started.
- Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Will is used to getting his way just by flashing some green. This tactic works on Ben—at first.
- Shirtless Scene: Ben has one of these while he's making his bed.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: Clara slaps Ben after his first attempt. His second is more successful.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Orson Welles was already world-renown for this by the time filming started. There's a story that while working, director Martin Ritt got so fed up with Welles' prima-donnaism that he drove Welles into the middle of a swamp, kicked him out of the car and forced him to find his own way back. They got along famously after that.
- Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Clara comes off as a genuine Ice Queen to most everyone, Ben in particular, but she insists that the children of the town be educated and is much more relaxed around her friend and Alan. She even admits as much to Ben during the picnic scene.Clara: You may not know it, but I've got quite a lot to give. I've got things I have been been saving up my whole life, things like love and understanding and jokes and good times and good cooking. I'm prepared to be the Queen of Sheba for some lucky man or at the very least the best wife that any man could hope for. Now that's my human history, and it's not going to be bought and sold and it's certainly not going to be given away to any passing stranger!
- Torches and Pitchforks: When the Varner barn catches on fire, some of the men in town come after Ben due to his reputation. Ultimately, Jody was the one who set the fire in an attempt to kill his father, but after having a change of heart and saving his father, Will both clears Ben's name on the incident and spares his son from Jail, stating that it was because he "accidentally dropped his cigar".
- Troubled, but Cute: Ben's family history is definitely a personal issue with him, but damn if he wasn't good-looking enough to make up for it!
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Jody Varner has always been this, but more so the minute his father Will comes back and scolds him for letting Ben stay in their town. He ends up gaining his father's approval in the end after saving his life from a barn fire he started.
- Will They or Won't They?: Played with. While its clear Clara begins to openly flirt with Ben in the end of the film, its unknown if he changes his mind and stays with her as he's shown packing up at the very end...though based on Will's quip, its implied he intends to stay.