B&W, 1959, 114 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Mercedes McCambridge, Albert Dekker, Gary Raymond
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK R0 HD), Twilight Time (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Sony (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Carlotta (Blu-ray) (France RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

A film Suddenly, Last Summerthat would normally be classified Suddenly, Last Summeras horror if it weren't for the high-toned prestige nature of its production and execution, Suddenly, Last Summer is the fourth and most notorious film adaptation of a play by Tennessee Williams, the toast of American theater at the time thanks to hits like A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth. There was one problem: all of his plays dealt with sexuality in a way that went far beyond what Hollywood's Production Code would allow, so the big screen versions had to be toned down considerably to receive a seal of approval. Based on a one-act play first performed in 1958 as part of a two-story diptych called Garden District, this particular story drew upon Williams' own experiences including the lobotomy and tragic fate of his sister and his own experiences as a gay man looking for companionship during a particularly oppressive time in American history. The film version from Columbia Pictures and hard-nosed producer Sam Spiegel was even more challenging than usual since its entire finale involved a monologue / flashback that went into perverse, gruesome territory that would have normally gotten the production shut down before the first foot of film was shot. Screenwriting duties were handed over to Gore Vidal (with Williams getting a co-writing credit despite a total lack of involvement), who managed to be a little more elusive about some elements of the story while keeping it strong enough to retain the spirit of the play. The end result was still too hot for some critics who were appalled by its indulgences in "sodomy, incest, and cannibalism," to name a few of its offenses, but it was a major hit (largely thanks to Elizabeth Taylor's iconic white bathing suit) and earned multiple Oscar nominations all the same.Suddenly, Last Summer

In sweltering New Orleans, Suddenly, Last Summerbrain surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) is suddenly informed after a lobotomy demonstration that his financially strapped state asylum would be greatly aided if he would go right away to see one of the city's wealthiest benefactors, the eccentric Violet Venable (Hepburn). Her home turns out to be a sweltering jungle of power plays and denial after the death last summer of her son, Sebastian, whom she says "saw the face of God" while on vacation in Europe with her niece, Catherine (Taylor). In past years Sebastian would travel with his mother, but that one last trip turned out to be a fateful one -- and now Catherine's locked away in the asylum because she won't stop jabbering about something evil and horrible that over the course of that summer. Violet would love nothing more than for the good doctor to slice away at Catherine's brain to make her stop, something Catherine's mother (McCambridge) and brother (Raymond) also want so they can get their hands on part of Sebastian's estate... but the truth, when it comes out, turns out to be more grotesque than the doctor could have imagined.

It seems odd that this subject matter was deemed a good choice for a major Hollywood production, but given Williams' track record at the box office and the presence of screen goddess Taylor, any issues with the taboo-heavy story were considered secondary at the time. A special dispensation was famously granted to openly speak about the "procuring" that leads to the violent finale, though cutting out the play's more Suddenly, Last SummerSuddenly, Last Summerexplicit connection also makes it seem like an accidental warning about hanging around near poor street kids with musical instruments. It's a heated, Gothic, florid concoction to the core with the actors all given breathy monologues and dramatic confrontations galore, all given a glossy polish by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who would reunite with Taylor more famously for Cleopatra). The turmoil behind the scenes has since become legendary, with Taylor and Hepburn insisting on keeping Clift on (this was his comeback film following a horrific car wreck) with Mankiewicz and Spiegel proving far less patient with his recovery issues; however, the film itself is certainly a memorable one and an audacious, bizarre translation of a theatrical work that still cuts to the bone.

Available on home video in a variety of formats over the years from Columbia and Sony including multiple VHS and DVD incarnations, Suddenly, Last Summer was given a sparkling 4K restoration by the studio for a pair of Blu-ray releases in the United States from Twilight Time and the United Kingdom from Indicator. The former has only an isolated music and effects track and the loony theatrical trailer as extras, while the Indicator features both and piles on a welcome batch of additional goodies as well. The transfer itself is stellar and up to the standards of the best Sony-sourced monochrome releases; likewise, the LPCM mono track sounds pin-sharp throughout except for one peculiar spot (at the 107m42s) mark where it's always sounded duller and more degraded, possibly due to some audio tinkering with Taylor's monologue to soften it down. A 1990 Mankiewicz interview (9m41s) for the French TV series Cinema Classics offers some insight into his views on the occupational nature of working in the film industry and the reason he stopped making films after Sleuth. A eulogy presented by Taylor (1m50s) for French TV after Clift's death in 1966 is also included, while a new interview with surviving cast member Suddenly, Last SummerGary Raymond (6m14s) features his own recollections of working with the cotton glove-wearing Mankiewicz and learning his Southern accent from Albert Dekker. The label's knack for finding unexpected stories from other crew members Suddenly, Last Summerpays dividends here again with "About Last Summer" (15m36s), a new featurette with second assistant editor John Crome and "Remembering Last Summer" with continuity supervisor Elaine Schreyeck (3m2s) discussing the technical issues of filmmaking at the time (including the joys of ADR work), the on-set tensions at Shepperton Studios, the deadline to get the film finished for Oscar consideration, andthe quirks of working with a director who's also a regular writer. "The Predator and the Prey" (25m36s) is a carryover from the film's 2017 French Blu-ray release, now with English subtitles, as critic and film historian Michel Ciment offers a lengthy analysis of the film's transition from stage to screen and its placement within the Mankiewicz filmography. A Trailers from Hell version of the trailer is included with filmmaker Dan Ireland wisely playing up the more sensational aspects, while a 40-image gallery features an assortment of production stills, promotional photos and posters. As usual the insert booklet included with the first pressing (3,000 units) is a keeper as well thanks to a new Samm Deighan essay, a vintage Films and Filming article from the set, a Tennessee Williams remembrance of the story, a profile of production designer Oliver Messel, samples from reviews during the film's initial release, and a publicity statement by Spiegel.

Reviewed on April 22, 2018.