Five heat-wave movies for a scorching hot summer

By Matt Martin

No one questions watching cold, snowy movies in winter. It just seems right. Every year, as the holidays approach and the weather outside turns cold and bitter (well, for Memphis anyway), we huddle together inside watching movies and television about warm, emotional human interaction amidst freezing temperatures and snowy climates. When we watch movies like White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, or Christmas Vacation, it has extra relevance and connection during the winter because the events on the screen seem to almost be happening in reality with us. The cold weather outside as we watch the movie adds to the suspension of disbelief, making the film seem more real and aids in our getting lost in the story. If you need an example, try watching Christmas Vacation or The Polar Express during the heat of summer. Trust me, they have zero power. They’re just not as much fun to watch, as if they’re bound to the season. And we, the culture, accept that and watch them continually every year, but only when the winter cold outside makes them truly dazzle and come to life.

But watch a movie set amidst sizzling temperatures and overbearing sun during an actual heat-wave summer and people might look at you strange, as if to ask, “Why would you want to see more of this awful, hot weather?” But much like certain winter films, there are some films that you can only watch in the summer. And not just any summer, but a painfully hot, sweltering summer that drives us inside, blurs our thinking, and controls our days. These are not only films set in the summer, but ones where the heat is a character of its own, as influential, pervasive, and integral as any human character. Like their winter counterparts, these films thrive and come alive if you watch them during an uncomfortably hot season. So take a pause during these dog days of summer to use the heat to your advantage. With a cool drink, a little shade, and not too-much air conditioning, get lost in these sun-blistered, 100-degree cinematic scorchers. And don’t wipe away your sweat. Trust me, it will help.

REAR WINDOW (1954) – Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic masterpiece, set during an acrid, hot Manhattan summer, finds Jimmy Stewart as a wheelchair-bound photographer who passes the boring hours of the day observing the growing tensions between his neighbors in the courtyard below his apartment window. The heat really starts to rise, both in the weather and in the drama, when he and his girlfriend (a luminous, but tough Grace Kelly) suspect one of them of murder. Hitchcock’s close, tense shooting style and claustrophobic setting capture the discomfort and growing unease of big city asphalt summer perfectly. When watched during really hot weather, the characters motivations and feelings of desperation seem all the more palpable.

THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH (1955) – This is one of the great comedies about summertime and easily one of Marilyn Monroe’s most charming roles. Based on the award-winning play by George Axelrod and set during another grueling Manhattan summer, the story centers on daydreaming businessman Richard who sends his wife and son away to the countryside for the season, while he stays in the city to work. All of his co-workers immediately start partying the moment their wives leave, while Richard swears to play it straight and narrow. But then the heat-wave forces an unexpected bond between him and his beautiful neighbor Monroe, who has no air-conditioning of her own. Fun, funny, sweet, and steamy, it was considered very risqué for its time. In one scene, Marilyn made cinematic history and her most iconic look, when she pauses over a subway street grate in a white, summer dress to playfully let the passing cool subway wind blow up her skirt. Magic.

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1962) – Released during the height of the early-1960s cold war panic and on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this honest and disturbing look at global Armageddon was the ultimate nightmare for many at the time. After simultaneous atomic tests in America and Russia cause a shift in the Earth’s axis, humankind discovers that Earth is falling out of orbit and set to collide with the sun. As the heat rises and water becomes scarce, governments begin taking drastic measures to control the masses, as mankind prepares for one last attempt at a solution. Although dated and peppered with some unnecessary melodrama (as films of this kind were at the time), the film sets up a sweaty, slowly-boiling wasteland that was once familiar, now seeming impossibly hot. The fear and heat-based sickness feel all the more disturbing when watched during a sweltering summer. A similar idea was explored in a phenomenal episode of The Twilight Zone from 1963 called “The Midnight Sun”. Want something more modern in heat-focused science fiction? Check out Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi mind-blower Sunshine about civilization facing a dying sun. A team of engineers and astronauts are sent toward the sun to attempt to force it to reignite through nuclear explosions. Brilliant, dizzying, and most importantly, believable. Space never seemed so hot before.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – On the hottest day of the year on a street in Brooklyn, the resentment, hatred, and racism of the neighborhood is smoldering under a veneer of fake tolerance. As the heat sets in, tempers flare, arguments turn to fights, and before long, no one is spared the explosion of violence that from the first scene, seem inevitable. Spike Lee’s groundbreaking cinematic signpost brought the independent film scene to life and started a new wave of black filmmaking in America, while being one of the most controversial and confrontational films of the 1980s. Each and every frame captures the oppressive nature of extremely hot weather, and its ability to alter and cloud our thinking and actions, as well as strip away the pleasantries of civilized life. The heat literally acts as a character representing their tensions. Lee uses a gallery of camera and editing tricks to convey it, from oversaturated lighting to forced camera perspectives to bright, hot color schemes. This is one of the greatest day-in-the-life films in history that takes on extra relevance when watched in the heat and humidity of summer.

BARTON FINK (1991) – The Coen brothers deliver one of their darkest movies in this uncomfortably-comedic drama about a New York intellectual writer in 1941 who moves into an eerie, extremely hot hotel in Los Angeles to write a low-budget wrestling movie for money. As writer’s block stalls him longer and longer, the heat and distractions of the hotel start to push his boundaries of sanity. Infused with multiple strains of film noir cinema, the directors let the subtleties of peeling wallpaper, cramped moist hallways, and long strands of sweat on an actor’s face convey the growing heat, both in the environment and in Barton’s mind. It all culminates with a jaw-dropping sequence when the heat really turns up, taking us all into Barton’s private hell. Funny, uneasy, and unforgettable. Ideally, you should watch this in a small, un-air-conditioned hotel room in the summer, but I guess your living room will do.

And there are so many more hot, summer movies bound to the season. Here are ten more to keep the more cinematic among you busy: Key Largo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, Paris When It Sizzles, 12 Angry Men, Night of the Iguana, Dog Day Afternoon, Endless Summer, Meatballs, and Falling Down.

And if you’re like me, you like to liberally dose your seasonal cinema feasts with plenty of summer horror movies, from Friday the 13th to Sleepaway Camp. And don’t forget to watch Wet Hot American Summer, the 2001 parody of summer camp films, starring first-time performances from a massive group of future A-listers, including Janeane Garofalo, Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, and Christopher Meloni.

Now wipe the sweat out of your eyes and get to watching while the painful summer sun still owns us all.

Matt Martin has written movie reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is co-owner of Black Lodge Video, located on the corner of Cooper and Evelyn. Black Lodge is the largest video store in the eastern US and is a faithful CYCA membership sponsor.

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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  1. Nice article! But the list is flawed if you don’t at least mention Body Heat.

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  2. Nicely written, Matt. We miss you guys out here in Cali. Hope to see you soon.

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