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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Blu Ray (Indicator)

A traumatic summer

Montgomery Clift plays Dr. John Cukrowicz, a brain surgeon who carries out lobotomies at a state mental institution in the Deep South. While he is frustrated by the inadequate working conditions, his boss Dr. Hockstader (Albert Dekker) tells him that there simply isn’t enough money to improve things. One day, however, a wealthy widow named Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) sends them a letter expressing an interest in pledging a huge and much-needed donation to the hospital.

Cukrowicz goes and pays her a visit in her mansion. She takes him out the back to her huge and curiously jungle-like garden for a chat. She explains, at great length, her former relationship with her son Sebastian, who died under mysterious circumstances “suddenly, last summer”. She also talks of her niece, a young woman named Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), who witnessed Sebastian’s death. Her experience has left her psychologically damaged and has resulted in her being locked up in another mental institution. Violet wants him to carry out a lobotomy on her, in order to calm her allegedly uncontrollable behaviour which includes sexually assaulting an elderly gardener.

When Cukrowicz visits Catherine, he decides that, rather than performing his risky surgical procedure, it would be easier to attempt to bring out her side of the story. Unfortunately, she finds it difficult to recollect the traumatic truth about what happened that fateful summer. Nonetheless, Cukrowicz persists in trying to drag it out of her, against the wishes of both Violet and his increasingly skeptical boss.

Watch a trailer:

A controversial adaptation

This adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play is notable for its references to homosexuality, incest, paedophilia and cannibalism. Of course, this being the 1950s “Hays Code” era, when such subject matter was taboo, these are all implied via turn of phrase rather than mentioned by name - let alone depicted on screen. However, while the approach to such content may seem incredibly coy by today’s standards, there’s still a discomfiting atmosphere to the film which really gets under the skin.

Being based on a play, there are lengthy exchanges of dialogue here which describe people and events from the past. The general criticism of stage-to-movie adaptations forgetting the all-important “show, don’t tell” rule of cinema is partially, but not entirely, addressed here. We do get a tension-filled lobotomy scene, a couple of disturbing, Dutch-angle-laden encounters with rooms full of excitable mental patients and a hazy flashback with dreamlike use of overladen imagery. There are even some telling touches in the production design, a classic example being those ominous grim reaper statues which take prominence in certain shots. There’s also the iconic image of Katherine Hepburn making her screen entrance via an elevator, as if descending from the heavens in the manner of a goddess - quite apt for a character whose influence (or attempted influence) on events could be construed to be akin to divine intervention. Nonetheless, it’s the words put into the mouths of the characters, courtesy of Williams and Gore Vidal (who made some additions and changes to flesh it out to feature-length), which are the main focus here.

Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and the Grim Reaper in Suddenly, Last Summer

Luckily, the dialogue here is poetic and compelling enough to paint some quite startling pictures in itself. Hepburn’s lengthy early monologue about birds devouring baby turtles as they attempt to crawl their way to the sea is an especially memorable moment - one which finds a narrative ellipse in the film’s conclusion. The veteran Hollywood actress is excellent as she gracefully carries off the tough balancing act of playing a wealthy woman who is, at once, encumbered with a weight of sadness about the demise of her son, and yet clearly possesses a streak of thinly-veiled ruthlessness when it comes to the complex matter of her (rather unorthodox) former relationship with him. Elizabeth Taylor may have received some criticism at the time from Tennessee Williams himself, who considered her to be miscast in this particular role. Leaving aside preconceptions, however, she turns in a powerful and emotive performance, her monologue about being lobotomised carrying a particularly memorable sting. Both actresses were Oscar-nominated for their work here. By comparison, Montgomery Clift comes across as being a bit too stolid as the heroic young doctor who attempts to save Catherine from the psychological torment which has been inflicted upon her. However, he’s far from bad here.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a fascinating and dreamlike psychological chiller which is well worth the rediscovery.

Runtime: 115 mins

Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Script: Gore Vidal, from a play by Tennessee Williams

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond, Mavis Villiers

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

As per usual with Indicator, this is a almost perfect restoration. Everything has been rendered with a wonderful level of definition and clarity, something best exemplified in the close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor’s face. It looks like the star (in film stock terms, at least) hasn’t aged a day since then.

Extras

Enclosed Booklet

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) poster

Devouring Creation: Gothic Horror in Suddenly, Last Summer by Samm Deighan takes a look at the place the film takes in the “Southern Gothic” sub-genre and its use of typical tropes. It also briefly discusses the changes the film script wrought on the original play, as well as some interesting mirrors between the story and author Tennessee Williams’ own family life - as his real-life sister Rose was lobotomised at the behest of his mother.

Joseph Mankiewicz: Putting on the Style is a 1960 Derek Conrad essay which includes snippets of an interview which he conducted with the director.

Production Designer Oliver Messel takes a look at the impressive mansion and garden sets which were designed for the film. Apparently, many of the plants were artificial and most of the mansion furnishings came from London antique shops. Both Noël Coward and Alec Guinness visited the set during production.

Tennessee Williams on Suddenly, Last Summer takes a look at the rather negative viewpoint that the playwright took of the film. It appears that he was particularly displeased by the film’s climax, which made overly literal what the writer had intended to be purely metaphorical.

A Statement by Sam Spiegel (the film’s producer) is a moral statement written in the wake of the film initially being by the Catholic Church’s National Legion of Decency.

The final article in the booklet features Indicator’s usual look at various contemporary critical responses - many of which positively seethe with sanctimonious 1950s moral outrage (which, frankly, make for a rather good advertisement for the film!)

On the disc itself are the following:

Joseph L. Mankiewicz Interview

This 1990 French TV interview with the director doesn’t specifically discuss Suddenly, Last Summer but it’s worth watching nonetheless, if only for his analogy that producers “piss in the tomato juice” that directors and actors metaphorically partake in when they make a film.

Elizabeth Taylor on Montgomery Clift

A very brief 1965 French TV tribute to Clift’s untimely death at 45 years of age.

Gary Raymond Interview

A 6-minute interview with the actor, who discusses his time on set with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Sam Spiegel.

About Last Summer

An interview with 2nd assistant editor John Crome. While he says that he is proud to have worked on the film, he admits that he didn’t enjoy it as much as some others. He says that Mankiewicz “was uptight”, and that there was a lot of pressure to work insane hours despite the difficulties of getting into the studio during a particularly severe winter - so that the film could be completed in time for the Oscars. Montgomery Clift’s footage was also removed from the rushes before they were screened to Spiegel because Mankiewicz felt that his real-life drinking habit came across too obviously on screen.

Remembering Last Summer

A brief (3-minute) interview with continuity supervisor Elaine Schreyeck. With such a short runtime she doesn’t exactly go in-depth, although she does mention that she particularly enjoyed working with Montgomery Clift.

The Predator and the Prey

French film historian Michel Ciment discusses Suddenly, Last Summer. He puts to rest the oft-touted rumour that Katherine Hepburn spat in director Mankiewicz’s face due to his treatment of Montgomery Clift. What really happened was that she spat on the floor in Sam Spiegel’s office as she detested the film. She didn’t like the fact that she looked so old on camera!

An isolated music and effects track, image gallery and trailer with commentary courtesy of Dan Ireland for Trailers from Hell.

Overall:

A beautiful and lyrical film which is as disturbing when watched nowadays as it undoubtedly was back then. By Indicator standards the selection of extras isn’t the best, but the restoration quality is hard to fault.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆

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