Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

This film is odd, which I suppose is to be expected given that it is based on a Tennessee Williams play of the same name. The story is bizarre and horrific and fascinating. But the end result of Suddenly, Last Summer, as a movie, is both compelling and tedious at the same time.

A doctor who specializes in lobotomies is asked to perform one on a rich widow’s niece. The niece appears to have gone mad following the death of the widow’s son in Europe, the Mediterranean area.

The widow wants to preserve the memory of her son (at least, her memory of him) and the niece’s madness seems to undermine this. The truth is the widow wants the lobotomy done in order to calm the niece down and, more significantly, to remove any memory that might not be in agreement with the widow’s remembrance of her son.

The doctor, however (played my Montgomery Clift), is not about to perform the operation before first understanding the case and the reasons for the niece’s madness (the niece is played by Elizabeth Taylor, the widow by Katharine Hepburn).

So he begins to interview the niece. As he questions and probes, her story begins to unfold and with it the truth.

The film, overall, looks and feels like what it is: a play. What this means is the entire story unfolds through language. While there are some interesting images (especially that of Mrs. Venable, the widow, descending/ascending from the floor above in her private elevator), and persuasive performances, the medium of film isn’t really used to tell the story – just to capture the play on film.

The story and the language are riveting. However, at times they are tedious.

While there are some nods made to the medium of film – some flashback shots, the sets – it is really all dialogue.

The story is literally told by the characters: initially by Mrs. Venable, then in the second half by Catherine, the niece.

Frankly, I don’t know how else it could have been done while retaining the words and essence of Williams. (The adaptation was done by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.) Still, while the film’s gothic look is engaging, as is the story and language, in many ways it doesn’t feel like a film.

Having said that, there are a few scenes that do make a nod to film and they are gripping, such as Catherine wandering in a mental asylum with inmates reaching for her, and a murder scene near the film’s end.

The story at the heart of Suddenly, Last Summer is a harrowing one. In some ways, the movie is a murder mystery, but one told with the linguistic, poetic voice of Tennessee Williams. From this point of view, it is fascinating. At the same time, the lengthy speeches, wonderful as many of them are, just don’t seem to belong on film.

The real problem with the movie is one I don’t know how you get around. How do you translate what Williams does in words (the speeches) into a visual language that reflects them?

Maybe you can’t.

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