Blu-ray Review: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Tennessee Williams was no stranger to tackling controversial themes in his plays–madness, sexuality, and domineering Southern matriarchs were frequent targets. Suddenly, Last Summer adapted for the screen by Williams with an assist from Gore Vidal from his 1958 play, is perhaps one of his darkest. In 1937 New Orleans, rich widow Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn, Desk Set, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) seeks to secure the services of groundbreaking surgeon, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift, The Young Lions, Judgement at Nuremberg). Her objective is to convince him to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who apparently went insane the previous summer after witnessing the death of Violet’s adult son, Sebastian. If the good doctor performs the operation, Violet will donate 1,000,000 to the hospital.

While the particulars of Sebastian’s death remain murky, it quickly becomes clear that mother and son had an uncomfortably close relationship. “We were a famous couple.” Violet smiles proudly, recalling how people stared at them at events. The dreamy look in her eyes seems to suggest that Violet loved her son in a way that should be reserved for a spouse or a lover. Violet bemoaning to Dr. Cukrowicz, “Lose your husband and you are a widow. Lose your only son and you are…nothing.”

A complex woman, Violet’s affections clearly come at a price. A domineering woman willing to go to great lengths to protect the reputations of herself and her son, she is in reality, a cold-hearted mother whose life, despite her riches, has been rather lonely.  Kudos to Katherine Hepburn who received one of her twelve Oscar nominations for this performance, she conveys her deeply wounded state of mind through a series of frightened looks and pouts. Her entrance and exit via elevator is classic stuff.

Made in 1959, any overt references to homosexuality had to be removed from the film. When Dr. Cukrowicz asks Violet about Sebastian’s personal life she tells him that, “He was chaste.” Later, Catherine yells to Dr. Cukrowicz and Violet that, “He used us as bait.” and “We procured for him.” The picture becomes clear rather quickly.

Elizabeth Taylor gives a fine performance here too. She gets to really emote in a few scenes with her good friend Montgomery Clift. Understandably, Catherine is a very emotional and angry young woman. Who can blame her? Why can’t she tell Dr. Cukrowicz what she really saw? The truth could set her free…Since this is a drama, the tension must be built up as much as possible. The films biggest problems are a limited plot, and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Cleopatra) fails to expand most of the scenes beyond the limits of the stage.

Taylor looks absolutely stunning in this film. She is thin, but curvaceous.  While her southern drawl tends to come and go, it’s obvious that Taylor gave her all to the part. Unsurprisingly though, Hepburn steals the film. Often expressing two emotions at once, she tells everyone what she wants them to know, while pushing her own agenda. Hepburn glaring at Taylor as she tells the truth of last summer is one of the films finest moments. Hepburn’s eyes shoot daggers as Taylor speaks under the influence of a “truth” serum.   Montgomery Clift has the less showy role of the three principles. He comely reacts, as Hepburn and Taylor compete to upstage each other. While Clift’s performance is fine, it’s also rather sad. Made three years after his horrific car accident, it’s obvious that his subsequent drug and alcohol problems were taking a toll on him. Here, playing a surgeon, in the one scene where he is supposed to be performing a lobotomy, his hands are noticeably shaking.

The ending flashback, considered disturbing and bizarre at the time of the film’s release, has lost little of its bite almost sixty years later. A stellar cast, and memorable performances make this a highly recommended Blu-ray.

Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this is a solid 1080p transfer. While I noticed some very slight film damage during the opening credits, after that, the image appears remarkably clean. Grayscale is appropriate, and whites have an appropriate sheen without ever appearing blown out. As I’ve said before, it’s always great to see these classic films getting the treatment they deserve.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 serves the film well. Decidedly front loaded, dialogue is crisp and clean, and the limited effects are stable. The score by Malcolm Arnold, and Buxton Orr is clear, swelling appropriately during moments of tension.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Isolated Score Track: Malcolm Arnold, and Buxton Orr’s score is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and sounds great.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:44)
  • Six-Page Booklet: Contains a selection of black and white stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s thoughtful analysis of the film.

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Movie title: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Director(s): Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Actor(s): Elizabeth Taylor Katharine Hepburn Montgomery Clift Albert Dekker Mercedes McCambridge , Gary Raymond

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

  • Movie
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