Let’s play a game. Describe a director’s style in two sentences or fewer. Here goes with Joseph Mankeiewicz for Suddenly, Last Summer: Reminiscent of Otto Preminger, his blocking is fluid, often elaborate and elegant, and his wide, flexible camera covers long-takes that puts the burden on performances. Mankiewicz uses close-ups only sparingly and really for grotesque emphasis or at the end.
Suddenly, Last Summer is a strange movie to have just watched given the passing of Elizabeth Taylor. She’s fantastic in the film and outshines the star-studded cast of Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift. Capable director Joseph Makiewicz helms this Tennessee Williams’ adaptation set in New Orleans where gifted lobotomy surgeon and unfortunately named Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) is asked by the wealthy and mysterious Mrs. Venable (Hepburn) to perform his cutting-edge technique on her niece Catherine (Taylor). The drama really surrounds Mrs. Venable’s son Sebastian who died “suddenly, last summer.” Venable speaks of her son in near-incestual terms and it soon becomes clear that she bears a grudge against Catherine and may be pushing the surgery out of jealous and superficial reasons as opposed to a true concern for the girl’s health.
From the style I described above you might get the idea that Mankiewicz ascribes to the classical style of Hollywood directing. His is very much one of invisibility where the camera rarely gives away its presence.
I want to talk in this post about the idea of the unreliable narrator and the use of flashback. Cukrowicz, acting as noir investigator (and there is much of the traditional noir trope throughout the film) organizes a “gang’s all here” gathering at the end of the film. He then proceeds to subtly coerce Catherine to tell her side of the story of last summer, i.e. what happened to Sebastian.
SPOILERS: Catherine tells of her time in Spain with Sebastian where, she claims, she was used as mere bait to attract men for Sebastian’s homosexual trysts, a claim that Mrs. Venable vehemently denies. As Catherine continues her story Mankiewicz uses a split-screen effect. He keeps Catherine (in the present) in the lower right corner of the frame, and uses the rest of the frame to show the events that she relates.
Catherine’s story is about Sebastian forcing her to wear a scandalous bathing suit to attract men. She continues on to a lunch she and Sebastian have at an outdoor restaurant where those same men – boys with makeshift musical instruments – flock and watch them, pleading for food. Then things rapidly deteriorate. She and Sebastian leave the restaurant and are pursued by this vast group of boys and young men up a long hill. Sebastian has a heart problem but he begins to run nonetheless. Catherine cannot keep up. At the top of the hill Sebastian is attacked by the boys and by the time a panic-stricken Catherine returns with help he has been “devoured.”
A dramatic story for sure. Here’s the problem with it. The scenes on the left side of the screen that Catherine describes show her behind Sebastian for most of them. In fact, she is not even in the frame for many of the events. Therefore, how can she know what specifically happened? It’s the classic problem of the unreliable narrator. Catherine describes events, and Mankiewicz, through his split-screen, tells us that what she is saying is a mixture of truth (shots when she is there) and pseudo-truth or falsehood (shots when she is not there).
So why does this matter? In many films (Siodmak’s The Killers, for example) it might not. But the end of Suddenly, Last Summer hinges solely on Catherine’s ability to tell the truth. If she does then she can disprove Mrs. Venable’s claim that Catherine killed Sebastian. She can avoid a lobotomy. Dr. Cukrowicz can live with a guilt-free conscience. All of this actually happens…but we are left with a sour taste. Because of Mankiewicz’s presentation we’re unsure if this is truth. If she can lie about a few instances, why can’t she make the whole thing up? It’s not a pro-lobotomy argument (though I am generally in favor of lobotomies for all), but it is worth noting that the climactic moment, the moment that causes the resolution, the moment where “good” triumphs over “evil,” where Mrs. Venable essentially has a breakdown could all in fact be a lie.