BR: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

October 5, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: August 15, 2017

Genre:  Drama / Suspense / Play

Synopsis: A neurosurgeon is coerced into performing a rushed lobotomy on a troubled young woman to appease her cruel mother-in-law, and obliterate details of her son’s sudden & suspicious death.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




The third film based on a Tennessee Williams play did great business upon its release, even earning Oscar nominations for Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, plus Art Direction-Set Decoration, but Suddenly, Last Summer is a strange little film whose pedigree hides a troubled production that may have contributed to the weird atmosphere that permeates scenes, not to mention the taboo subject matter that was diluted to appease censors.

Set in 1937, Williams’ 1958 one act play was expanded by Gore Vidal into a feature length film with flashback scenes and more material within the asylum where Catherine Holly (Taylor) is ‘gently’ incarcerated by neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) and hospital boss Dr. Hockstader (Albert Dekker) before she’s slated to undergo a lobotomy – a new (and horrific) experimental, last resort procedure to tackle patients suffering from extreme mental disorders.

The lobotomy is being forced upon Catherine by mother-in-law / aunt Violet Venable (Hepburn) to eradicate memories of how son Sebastian died during a prior summer vacation. To accelerate her vile plot, Violet hurries a donation of hefty funds towards the clinic, which is unable to treat the increasing volume of affected patients packed within its grim bowels.

Cukrowicz doesn’t develop romantic feelings for Catherine per se, but there is an attraction and genuine sympathy for the beautiful soul tormented by suppressed trauma, and it’s Violet’s immutable deadline that hastens the plot: either Cukrowicz performs the procedure the next day, or the funds will be denied until another surgeon is brought in to close the deal.

With the exception of Cukrowicz, most of the characters are outright selfish, including Catherine’s spineless mother Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) and slimy brother George (Gary Raymond); both are willing to sign off on the procedure in exchange for $100,000 cash, a ‘fair’ trade-off for what the repulsive pair characterize as a simple cure for a cold-like ailment.

Cukrowicz eventually sets up a last-ditch meeting in which all major characters sit and observe as he extracts hidden memories of that summer from Catherine after a ‘truth serum’ injection. As the details unfurl, director Joseph Mankiewicz dramatizes the events in a surreal set of flashbacks designed to resemble a Freudian nightmare, with exaggerated and sometimes overbearing details.

What emerges from Catherine’s haze is still a bit foggy – the censors still didn’t want any overt acknowledgement of Sebastian’s use of his mother and new wife to proffer male waifs for his pleasure – but the grotesqueness of his demise is memorable: a weak man scrambling to the peak of a hill to avoid being consumed by starving waifs wielding tools and musical instruments fashioned from rubbish.

Suddenly follows a similar tone of Williams’ southern Gothic dramas, with potent matriarchs, a deep seething secret, sexual tensions, and ruined psyches, but for audiences there’s also the real sadness of seeing a fragile Clift playing the contrasting role of a wholly confident, mentally solid doctor, while the more troubled characters were portrayed by more sane cast members.

Taylor and Clift had co-starred in the ill-fated epic Raintree County (1957), during which the actor was involved in a horrific car accident that smashed up his face and mandated reconstructive surgery. (The changes can be seen in the finished film, as production was put on pause while the actor was on a fast-tracked recuperation.) Clift became addicted to painkillers and less reliable to studios; his casting was reportedly an insistence by Taylor, fresh off the lauded film version of Williams’ Cat on a Hot tin Roof (1958).

Clift’s performance isn’t weak, but he seems periodically bewildered, a half-beat away from remembering lines and reactions which the editor tried to work around. Mankiewicz nevertheless managed to extract a consistent performance, and the film is worth a peek for watching an amazing cast interact and bounce off each other: Hepburn is terrifying as a steely matriarch accustomed to having her way by simply uttering a few sharp words or inflicting a cold, vicious gaze with her glassy eyes; Taylor is wholly sympathetic in a role that could’ve been played as a clichéd, oversexed neurotic; and veteran character actor Dekker (Dr. Cyclops) is strong as the practical minded, opportunistic hospital head who ultimately realizes a patient’s welfare has greater moral imperative than money.




Vidal’s ending does differ from the play: Catherine achieves her psychological breakthrough, but the finale feels blatantly Hollywood: her brother comforts her crumpled body, guilt pushes Violet over the edge after the truth is spewed, and most ridiculous, Catherine and Cukrowicz walk into the house together with no hint of any lingering issues – cured, and ready for romance.

It’s a pity the need to tack on a blatantly uplifting ending trumped something more real – closing the film with the whole group in emotional disarray would’ve been more pleasing – but Taylor more or less manages to sell the transition, with Suddenly being one of several strong performances during a particularly fruitful career period that included BUtterfileld 8 (1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and The Taming of the Shrew (1967).




Clift would appear in 5 more films before his death in 1966 at the age of 45, playing an affecting romantic lead in the underrated Wild River (1960), a beat-up cowboy in the troubled The Misfits (1961), and a concentration camp survivor in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961). His last roles were playing Sigmund Freud in the eerie Freud (1962), and a recruited spy in The Defector (1966).

Mankiewicz’s next film was Cleopatra (1963), the deeply troubled production that almost killed studio Fox, but remains perhaps the most opulent Egyptian epic ever made, headlined by Taylor, Rex Harrison, and Richard Burton.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray doesn’t have a commentary – a pity, given the film’s history – but Julie Kirgo’s passionate essay champions all the right things: the performances; Jack Hildyard’s stunning B&W cinematography, which flatters each star in several magnificent, razor sharp close-ups; the eerie music; and the film’s weird aura and taboo-breaking, which Kirgo attributes partly to bullish producer Sam Spiegel (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, The Chase), who managed to get the film made with plenty of stark subtext and references in spite of objections by the prudish Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency.

TT’s disc includes an isolated mono music & effect track featuring the unreleased score by Malcolm Arnold (who wrote the main themes) and Buxton Orr’s arrangements, and the booklet sports both the Swedish poster art, and a still of Taylor in that famous form-fitting white bathing suit, which must have made it challenging for some censors to keep their third leg still when the water makes the actress quite translucent.

The original theatrical trailer is quite terrible; it’s similar to the mess UA’s publicity department crafted for Mankiewicz’s prior film, the potent and underaated The Quiet American (1958).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmographies: Malcolm Arnold / Buxton Orr
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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