Friday, June 8, 2018

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)

Violet Venable is a manipulatively violent and venerable Matriarch, a woman shattered by the grief of her dead son; a faceless man consumed by his own dire obsessions. Catherine Holly is the man’s cousin, witness to some horrid event that has left her emotionally paralyzed, engulfed by repressed memories and locked away in an asylum where she must face her religious tormentors…as well as her own inner demons. Into this predatory environment stumbles Dr. “Sugar”, a scientist on the cutting edge of a new psychiatric treatment called a Lobotomy: if he can cure Catherine, then Ms. Venable will donate a million dollars to his failing Institution. But the sweet Doctor isn’t convinced of Catherine’s mental illness and he must make a moral decision between possibly destroying one woman to help hundreds others.

Director Joseph Mankiewicz is able to transform this verbose screenplay into a visually exciting drama with tight framing, extreme close-ups and deep focus photography, utilizing themes of predation and death such as the Venus Flytrap, a grim statue of the Reaper, and even the name of his Institution…Lion’s View Asylum. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor eat-up the screen with undeniable tension while Montgomery Clift deftly plays the part of mediator trapped between these two deadly rivals.

The final act comes together in a flashback as Catherine releases the truth in a damning torrent: she and her Aunt where only pawns in a game of pederasty, and her Aunt could not live with this awful confession. Mankiewicz films the frisson of the chase scored by a clanging metal dirge, as Catherine’s cousin (whose face is never revealed) races towards his doom where neither money nor borrowed sexual favors can save him. A skeletal woman robed in black and the scythe of death descends upon her memory…while those he victimized eat her cousin alive. Through this catharsis Catherine is saved while Violet descends into unknown depths of despair and anxiety, and ascends upon her throne towards her final resting place.


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