Saturday, February 24, 2007

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (Columbia 1959) Sony Home Entertainment

Easily one of the most bizarre and unsettling Gothic melodramas Hollywood has ever produced, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is perhaps best described as a nightmare for adults. The film is based on Tennessee Williams’ chilling stage masterpiece, its screenplay by Gore Vidal remaining relatively faithful to its source material.

The story concerns Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor); a woman institutionalized by her wealthy aunt, Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) after a summer holiday in Greece turns tragic. Violet has invited skilled surgeon, Doctor John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to her home to discuss her niece's case  in greater detail. Moreover, it is Violet's wish that Cukrowicz should lobotomize Catherine at the first possible opportunity to alleviate her 'nightmares'.

But does Violet really have Catherine’s best interests at heart? Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) seems to think so. Then again, she is dependent on Violet’s good graces and charity for her own livelihood. At least by Cukrowicz's first examination of Catherine, there seems to be something quite sinister about Violet's urgency to perform the operation. Catherine is obviously scared. Possibly, even disturbed. But is she mad? In other words, would a lobotomy help? 

Violet doesn't much care. To sweeten the deal, she has promised Cukrowicz that compliance with her request will result in a very large endowment for the county hospital where he practices. But should money be the deciding factor in forever altering a young woman’s mental state?

Cukrowicz doesn’t think so, and his opposition to the surgery leads to an even more intense investigation of Catherine’s seemingly incoherent ramblings – one that exposes ugly family secrets about Violet's late son, Sebastian with dire consequences for all.

It seems that Sebastian and Violet shared a rather incestuous relationship for many years during his upbringing. However, as Violet's looks began to fade Sebastian turned to his cousin, Catherine to help him procure young male street urchins for his own sexual exploitation. This Catherine willingly did for Sebastian while the two were away on their Greek holiday. 

But in Greece Sebastian became ill. The hungry urchins decided to gang up and devour him as revenge. And yes - I mean just that. They tore Sebastian limb from limb and ate his remains before Catherine's very eyes. Who wouldn't have nightmares after that?!?

It is these sordid details that Violet has been hoping to keep secret by having Catherine lobotomized. Instead, Catherine's revelation of these unholy truth sends Violet's own mental psyche into an irreversible tailspin. As she retreats into a world of her own imagination and design Cukrowicz realizes that Violet has been the diabolically disturbed one all along. By contrast, the truth has set Catherine free. She leaves the hospital with renewed confidence.  

Suddenly Last Summer is dark and disturbing beyond all expectation. Given that the final act of Tennessee Williams’ play openly deals with cannibalism and homosexuality – or if you prefer 'homosexual cannibals' - either way, taboo subjects under the Production Code - it is remarkable how much of the play's venom and haunted sexual depravity has been preserved on film. 

Katherine Hepburn delivers a seminal performance as the aging spider woman who will stop at nothing to keep her late son’s secrets buried. Elizabeth Taylor is riveting as the young woman who must expose the truth to someone - anyone - despite living in constant fear of her aunt. Montgomery Clift is understated, proving a very solid counterbalance between these two. In the end, Suddenly Last Summer is daring and provocative – sometimes wordy – but never anything less than an emotional powerhouse. It is definitely worth a second look on DVD.

Sony Home Entertainment’s DVD is remarkably clean. The B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. There are several sequences, particularly those employing split screen dissolves and fades, that are heavier on film grain and age related artifacts. Otherwise, there's much to recommend this presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Regrettably, there are NO extras. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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