• Suddenly, Last Summer

    Released by: Twilight Time
    Release date: August 15, 2017
    Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
    Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond
    Year: 1959

    The Movie:

    In late-1930s New Orleans, neurosurgeon John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is fed up with having to perform delicate surgeries on mental patients with out-of-date hospital equipment. When an aging benefactress, Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), suggests meeting with Dr. Cukrowicz, the hospital’s head doctor, Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker), pounces on the idea, hoping that Cukrowicz can convince Violet to donate the money the hospital needs for updates. When Cukrowicz finally does meet with the wealthy heiress, he learns that she is a widow in mourning—mourning the death of her son, Sebastian, the previous year.

    Violet tells the young doctor that her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), has recently returned from Europe, insane, after an alleged sexual assault. Catherine is now hospitalized in a Catholic mental institution. After meeting her, Cukrowics quickly determines that she isn’t insane, but something that happened last summer has greatly traumatized her—as well as Violet, so much so that Violet wants Catherine lobotomized to remove the awful truth. To this end, Violet has approached Catherine’s mother (Mercedes McCambridge, better known as the demonic voice of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, 1973) and brother (Gary Raymond), offering them money to ensure that Catherine goes through with the operation. Instead, Cukrowicz devises a plan to learn exactly what terrible event occurred the previous summer.

    Suddenly, Last Summer is an imperfect whole made from perfect parts. While its metaphorical denouement is a bit too ridiculous to be believed, its performances, as well as Tennessee Williams’ and Gore Vidal’s delicious dialogue, are its primary drivers. One long take in particular reveals just why Katherine Hepburn has long been considered one of Hollywood’s greatest leading ladies, and she refuses to relinquish her throne here to top-billed Elizabeth Taylor, nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the previous year’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958; also adapted from a play by Williams). If the popular press at the time—as well as critics both old and young—are to be believed, both stars outshine leading man Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, who was roundly criticized for playing the part through a painkiller-and-booze-infused haze. Yet, Clift’s performance is hardly flat; rather, he plays his role with quiet strength and grace despite the real-life pain he endured. His Cukrowicz is a thoughtful listener, one who takes charge of situation after situation, often with only a word or two. When he raises his voice, he becomes powerful and commanding, a force the other characters unquestioningly heed.

    Highly controversial in its day, Suddenly, Last Summer proved a smash with box office patrons after they were warned off by various religious and moral crusaders. A horror film of sorts, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz infuses the film with images of death, first among the various statues of the Venable garden, then in the painting of the pierced St. Sebastian that adorns Sebastian Venable’s room, and then in the images of crucifixion that grace the walls of the mental institution in which Catherine is incarcerated. But most striking of all are the images of Death that stalk Sebastian as he climbs the European hill to find his own demise among the ruins and sacrificial stone altar of an ancient temple. The story that Violet Venable tells of birds menacing the baby turtles of the Encantadas as they race toward the sea to escape their fate is both a metaphor and a foreshadowing of the horrors of the film’s final terrible act.

    If the film has any real faults, they lie in its confusion of homosexuality and pederasty; so debased is Sebastian Venable that the audience is never allowed to see his face, and when his victims are finally aroused to devour him, we are expected to be both disgusted and relieved that such a debauched monster is no longer among the living. While the denouement was clearly intended to act as an allegory, Dr. Hockstader’s pronouncement that there’s every reason to believe Catherine’s story to be true is somehow laughable. Not that it matters in the long run; Suddenly, Last Summer’s emotional landscape is harrowing and involving, made all the more real by its principal players.


    Twilight Time brings Sony’s Suddenly, Last Summer to Blu-ray in 1080p high definition with an MEG-4 AVC encode at the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. And what a visually stunning presentation it is. The image is crisp and clear, with a range of grays like ink-washed art in hues of black and white. The Venable garden with its (mostly plastic and cloth) tropical plants appears deep and lush, while Sebastian’s sitting room features an array of furnishings and materials never-before spied on VHS, laserdisc, or DVD. To see this detailed image in all its glory, look at the print on Taylor’s blouse when Cukrowicz first visits her in the mission hospital, or check out the many threaded sports jackets that Clift wears throughout. At one point, you can even see Taylor’s peach-fuzz mustache and the thin layer of hair that covers her forearms. Just as obvious are the little scars that mark one side of Cliff’s face, or the many lines etched across Hepburn’s weathered visage. It’s as if these people are in the room with you, and you can see every aspect of their physical being. The image is spread across a dual-layered disc, and it shows. Grain is minimal, mostly a slight layer underscoring the film’s celluloid roots, and there are no issues with blowout, dirt and debris, or crush. Transition fades remain remarkably clear and detailed, and there’s none of the wobble that sometimes graces older films. Sony has clearly given the film a state-of-the-art transfer, and Twilight Time’s presentation is the perfect vehicle through which to view it.

    Audio is just as solid. The primary soundtrack is presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (mono). Dialogue is never difficult to understand, and there’s no hiss like that which accompanied the VHS. Defects are absent. Twilight Time also provides the flm’s music and effects in isolation on a secondary track, also in DTS-HD MA. Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included as well.

    The only on-screen extra is the film’s original theatrical trailer, which plays up the controversial nature of its sexuality. And, as with all Twilight Time releases, liner notes are provided in a beautifully produced 8-page booklet written by film historian Julie Kirgo. Kirgo’s notes are, as usual, astute, and anyone who loves this film (or anyone who doesn’t, for that matter) should read them. Not only are they informative, they’re also well written, as this sentence attests: “The brainchild of a pair of tormented, deviously provocative artists—Tennessee Williams, who wrote the one-act play on which the film is based, and Gore Vidal, who, at Williams’ suggestion, penned the adaptation—Suddenly, Last Summer is a bitches’ brew of madness, betrayal, suggested incest, manipulative (if self-hating) homosexuality, cannibalism—and worse.”

    There is also an on-screen catalog of TT titles released so far.

    Suddenly, Last Summer is limited to 3,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    Suddenly, Last Summer was a controversial hit in its day and is no less controversial today, thanks in part to a shocking script by Gore Vidal based on a thrilling one-act play by Tennessee Williams. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, while scant on the extras, presents the film in splendid form, with a beautifully textured, detailed image and crystal-clear sound. This reviewer has seen the film in every format in which it’s been released, yet this latest presentation features plenty of visual surprises, offering new details in Mankiewicz’s image that shore up the film’s reputation as a bona fide classic while providing evidence for its inclusion as a bizarre masterwork of the horror genre.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!