A Hallmark telefilm written in the manner of a stage play, A Storm in Summer (2000) was the last directorial project of Robert Wise. Set in 1969 during the Viet Nam War era, Peter Falk plays a small town shopkeeper running a corner deli somewhere in upstate New York. Abel Shaddick strides about the confined set moving things & talking to the picture of his dead son Benji, who died a couple decades earlier in World War II.
His ne'er-do-well nephew Stanley (Andrew McCarthy) signs up for a big-brother type of charity stint while trying to impress a country club girl (Nastassja Kinski). When it comes time to deliver on his volunteerism, however, he sets out for a gambling vacation & leaves his grouchy Uncle Abel holding the bag.
There's a slight effort to make this teleplay cinematic, with a couple extra sets, including a view of Herman D. Washington (Aaron Meeks) at home in Harlem with his grandmother (Ruby Dee) getting ready to catch a bus upstate for a small-town experience, plus a fishing excursion & a country club scene much later in the story.
But in the main it takes place in Abel's poorly stocked deli, & the film is reliant on the quality of acting & a superior script for its emotional impact.
Herman shows up with a chip on his shoulder but ou can tell deep down he's a decent kid who hasn't had many rewards in life, yet can't help but hope for the best. Instead, he meets a bitter insufferable old goat who immediately informs him he's not welcome & he'll be put on the next bus back to Harlem.
But before that next bus arrives, they already start their bonding experience, which by the end will turn to the deepest affection for one another, so that the journey was after all mutually healing.
The tragedy of Herman's loss equal to that of Abel was somewhat dissonant with the "happy" epilog, & along the way, a couple of the lectures on the racism & antisemitism bring the story to a screeching halt while the obvious is overstated. But in general this is a film that manages to be heartwarming & dramatic without being sentimental claptrap. It's a meaningful family film infused with honeste compassion.
Robert Wise's A Storm in Summer is a remake of the Rod Serling script initially produced as The Merchant of Scarsdale (1970) which I saw as a kid.
Time plays tricks with memory, but I remember the original version pretty sharply. It made me a Peter Ustinov fan, & there's just no way Peter Falk was his equal, good though Falk was.
In fact The Merchant of Scarsdale had been one of those "things seen when young" that came back to haunt my memory over the years, as one of the truly beautiful pieces of television viewing.
Herman D. Washington was played by N'Gai Dixon with an angrier & sadder edge than in the remake; it's odd Dixon seems to have appeared in nothing else, & apparently died in 1986 without much public notice.
And Ustinov as a kosher butcher was convincingly a denizen of an old-fashioned Jewish neighborhood, bitter with grief, & slow to embrace a Harlem kid already as disappointed with life as a lonely old man.
I can't find that the original version has ever had a modern release but I would dearly love to see it again & learn for certain whether or not my memory of its harrowing beauty holds up. It's possible the remake is identical to the original, & my recollection of an even more powerful version is merely an echo of having had a rawer sympathy in youth.
As I remember it, these two people being parted at the end was a truly wrenching experience, whereas in the remake there's a coda tacked on that makes it clear they're going to be lifelong friends with a room kept always ready for the kid's visits. If that was in the original it was erased by my memory in favor of the sadness of loss.
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