Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Blu-ray Review: It Happened One Time

Odd, compelling, and strangely satisfying, this unique and controversial film returns to shock contemporary audiences for entirely different reasons.
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Hailing from that time before the Southern Gothic tale somehow transformed into hicksploitation, Suddenly, Last Summer extends from the creative talents of both Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal and co-stars Montgomery Clift. That right there should indicate to most out-ward viewers there will be a certain subject matter hidden in the story's proverbial closet. In the hands of The Barefoot Contessa writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, however, the subdued element of homosexuality is about as subtle as, well, Liberace. And yet, somehow, they got away with it in 1959, mainly thanks to an element many exploitation filmmakers of the time would frequently employ: something known as "a moral."

Produced by the legendary Sam Spiegel, Mankiewicz's take on Vidal's adaptation of Williams' one-act play finds three cinematic greats ‒ Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and the aforementioned Montgomery Clift ‒ all at entirely different phases of their varied careers. For Elizabeth Taylor, it was that glamorous time immediately after the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (and before her Richard Burton years). For Katharine Hepburn, it was a return to the silver screen after a few cinematic duds and a brief (but successful) Shakespeare tour. And then there was poor Monty Clift, who was in the midst of a slow descent into death following a disfiguring automobile accident which he never truly recovered from.

Indeed, Clift is the weakest link of the three film titans. But his is also one of the most fascinating performances to view in Suddenly, Last Summer from a psychological point. Awkward and shaky from the substances he reportedly used to numb the ever-present pain, his role as a brilliant brain surgeon may seem a tad unbelievable, but, to be perfectly fair, we have since seen real life presidential candidates from the same profession who have been just as unstable. While his dialogue comes through with nary a hitch, his body language is so fascinatingly uncomfortable, it was watching myself trying to make conversation with a woman. But that's all beside the point, really, so let's get on with it.

Set in 1937 New Orleans, Suddenly, Last Summer finds brain surgeon/psychiatrist Clift summoned by local wealthy elitist Hepburn, who is more than willing to donate a generous amount of moolah to the state hospital he works for. Provided he perform a simple routine lobotomy on her niece, that is. And thus begins an intriguing investigation into the death of Hepburn's prized son, who died mysteriously whilst on vacation in Europe. Kate blames her beautiful niece ‒ as played with gusto by Elizabeth Taylor ‒ for the accident. But as Dr. Clift probes into the young, supposedly mad woman's brain (figuratively, fortunately), he begins to suspect something else is afoot.

And indeed there is a lot hidden behind the scenes in Suddenly, Last Summer, both on and off. On-screen, we get to see former Dr. Cyclops Albert Dekker as Clift's superior, and Mercedes McCambridge (who later provided the voice of the demon in The Exorcist!) and Gary Raymond (The Rat Patrol) as Taylor's somewhat unscrupulous mother and brother. Off-screen, Suddenly, Last Summer has its own strange dramas to revel in, including a legend that Katharine Hepburn reportedly spat in director Mankiewicz's eye once shooting wrapped for the way he treated Montgomery Clift. In fact, several people ‒ including Tennessee Williams himself ‒ would go on to disown their involvement in the film.

Honestly, with that much drama going on both on-screen and off, how can you not love a movie like Suddenly, Last Summer? Why, there's even a constant incest vibe and a gruesome flashback climax that almost feels like it was part of a '70s Spanish horror film which fell through a freak wormhole. To top it all, the movie was judged as being obscene when it premiered, only to become a hit. Or, in other words, it has just about everything the modern American television series thrives on. Funny how things change like that, eh?

Suddenly, Last Summer proudly joins the Twilight Time catalogue as a Limited Edition release. Sporting a gorgeous 1080p MPEG-4/AVC transfer, the controversial Columbia Pictures classic looks positively stunning throughout. The film is presented in its intended 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack and optional English (SDH) subtitles. Special features are meager for this release (it's not like anyone involved with the film wanted to talk about it even when they were alive!), and include an isolated score by Malcolm Arnold and Buxton Orr (the latter of whom was called in to finish the job, after Malcolm found the film too disturbing!), the original theatrical trailer, and liner notes by Twilight Time's own Julie Kirgo.

Recommended.

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