Based on a play by Tennessee Williams, a wealthy woman wants her niece to have a lobotomy, and the surgeon tries to find out if she needs one.
In 1937 in Lions View State Asylum many women spend their time in a large room. An attendant helps a scared woman down and guides her out of the room.
In the gallery of an operating theater Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker) welcomes men who are witnessing psycho-surgery, a lobotomy on the brain of a woman. Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is performing the surgery. When he cuts the skin on the head, there is a brief disturbance. A light falters as he works. He completes his task and tells an aide to sew it up. He tells the audience they observed the most primitive conditions he ever hoped to encounter.
He goes out, and in another room he complains to Hockstader that he needs a light that works and better conditions. John threatens to go back to Chicago. Hockstader gives him a letter to read from the widow Mrs. Violet Venable. Hockstader says she is wealthy and wants to support the work of Dr. Cukrowicz. She wants to meet with him that afternoon on an urgent matter. Hockstader says he has been trying to see the Venables for years.
Dr. Cukrowicz enters a wealthy home, and the butler tells him to wait. Miss Foxhill (Mavis Villiers) comes down the stairs and says she is Mrs. Venable’s secretary. Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) comes down in an elevator and talks about Byzantine history. They shake hands, and he says his name means sugar in Polish. She says he expected an old widow. She takes his arm and says she lost her only son. She says he is handsome and that he reminds her of her late son. She leads him to the garden which he observes is like a tropical jungle. She says it is like creation and was Sebastian’s idea. She says the plants have names attached. She feeds her Venus Fly-trap with a dead fly. She asks about the lobotomies he performs. She asks Miss Foxhill to finish feeding it flies. He asks her what her son did. She says Sebastian was a poet; his life was his work. She explains that a poet’s life is his work. She asks if his operation works, and he says it does, though it is experimental. She likes his description of a knife in the mind. He says they need help and have very little money. She knows and says her niece suffers from dementia praecox and is in an institution. She notes he is not from New Orleans. He says he is from Chicago. She would like to see Chicago but does not expect she will. She wants to build a memorial to her son. He did not want fame. She says he as a doctor is dedicated to his work which is like God’s work. She sits down and points out Sebastian’s studio. She regrets debris that piles up. He speaks of quiet desperation. She and her son were a well-known couple. She says they constructed their days, but suddenly last summer her son died. He asks about her niece’s diagnosis. She says she is obsessed and has hallucinations. It started last summer, and she learned she was out of her mind. She was taken to St. Mary’s, but they cannot keep her there. She babbles obscenely and attacks her son Sebastian. She must find another place for her, and she read about him and hopes he will answer their prayers. He says his treatment is for the hopeless. He asks what she says. She says that Catherine accused a gardener of making love to her. She spoke obscenely and had to be controlled by four nuns. He wants to see her as soon as possible and could transfer her to Lions View. Mrs. Venable says her husband contributed money. He says the operation is risky. She read that it pacifies them, and he agrees; but they do not know whether the result is lasting. It may be the patient will be limited. She would like her to be peaceful. She refers to dangerous birds, and she says her son was looking for hungry birds. She was going to say her son was looking for God. She says he saw the face of God, and John says he would like to hear about that. She tells how her son persuaded her to visit the South Seas that Melville wrote about. She says they saw great turtles laying eggs in sand-pits before they go back to the sea. They witnessed the hatching of the sea-turtles and the birds which swooped down to eat them. Her son made her look, but she tried to deny it. The birds turned the turtles over and ate their flesh. Her son said only about one percent escaped to the sea. She says nature is cruel and that Sebastian knew that. She believes they are trapped by the devouring creation. Her son left her to stay on a ship and watch the beast until he believed he saw the face of God. She refers to the horrible, inescapable proof.
They go in the house and see Mrs. Grace Holly (Mercedes McCambridge) and her son George (Gary Raymond) who is getting Sebastian’s clothes. Grace meets Dr. Cukrowicz and hopes he will help her daughter. Mrs. Venable asks them to leave now. Dr. Cukrowicz finds a photo, and Grace says it is her daughter Cathy. Mrs. Venable asks the doctor to save her because madness is terrible. She tells them to go, and the Hollys say thanks and leave. Mrs. Venable says Catherine is remarkable, and she praises Sebastian again. Dr. Cukrowicz sits down in Sebastian’s seat. Miss Foxfire brings in a frozen daiquiri to Mrs. Venable as her “medicine.” He asks about her stay there last summer. She says Catherine lost her mind the day her son died. He asks what he should tell Dr. Hockstader. She asks him to wait until he has met her niece to see if his operation can help her. He starts to leave, and they go out to the garden. She talks about vegetarian dinosaurs and then the carnivores. He leaves.
A nun tells Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) that she is to go with her. They walk through the dining room to another room where Dr. Cukrowicz is waiting out of sight. Catherine paces and lights a cigarette, but the nun says that is not allowed and demands it. Catherine puts it out in her hand, and the nun complains. John comes forward, and the nun says he saw it. He advises her to put something on her hand, and the nun goes out. Catherine says he is brave to be alone in the room with her. She is known to be violent and accuses men of rape. She says she accused a man unjustly and was punished. She says she is insane. She describes his eyes as beautiful and frightened. She stands and says she will attack him. She begs for a cigarette, and he approves. She lights one and says she has not responded to treatment. She says he may intervene in her hopeless case. He asks if it is hopeless. She asks where he is from, and he says Lions View. She says they will keep her there forever like an animal in a cage. She thinks Aunt Violet hates her, but she says she thinks she is sane. She says her aunt cannot help herself. They all loved Sebastian, but Violet loved nobody else, giving up her husband. She says he was dull to the point of genius. She says they did terrible things. Violet’s husband died because of Sebastian. One summer Sebastian decided to become a Buddhist monk in Tibet. Aunt Violet went there and took vows to be near him and to bring him home. She chose to let her husband die alone. She says no one had a chance once Sebastian decided they were to be used. She says love is using people and hate is not being able to. He asks her first memory, and she says it was a Mardi Gras ball last year. He asks her about it. She was taken there by a boy who got drunk. While leaving, someone took her arm and took off her coat. He took her to oaks in the car. She knew what he would do. She got out of the car, and he followed her. She said she lost him, and he took her home. He said they should forget it because his wife is expecting a child. She got home but called taxi and went back to the ball where she made a scene, beating the man with her fists until Sebastian took her away. He says her name, and she says she is there. She says he wants to play a game by associations. He asks her about a shadow on the wall. She sees the oaks and Catherine losing her honor and trying to make him feel sorry for her. He says he is sorry, and she believes him. He asks about Sebastian, and she says she loved him. He asks in what way. She tried to save him from his image of himself as a sacrifice to a terrible God. He saw something not gentle in the universe. She talks about one day last summer. He asks how Sebastian died. She does not remember, and he asks her to try. She says the beach was white and the sun was burning like the eye of God. Then they came, and he asks who. She says they came from the beach making noisy music. She says she still hears it and writhes. She screams, “Sebastian, no!” He embraces her to calm her, and the nun comes in. He tells the nun to get out, and she goes out. Catherine says she can’t remember and asks him to help her. He says he will, and she kisses him. She says she should not have done that, but he says it was a friendly kiss. She says the story in the garden may be true. She asks if she can wear a pretty dress at Lions View. He says she can, and she goes out.
Hockstader invites Dr. Cukrowicz into his office and takes him on a balcony to show him the construction outside. He says they are getting $1,000,000, and she wants him to do the operation on her niece. John says that something horrible happened to the girl last summer, dreadful and traumatic, but she cannot remember. He says she must be made to remember. A nurse comes in and says Mrs. Holly is there to see the next patient. He asks about Catherine, and the nurse says she looks well with her hair done and nice clothes. Hockstader says she cannot wear her own clothes; but John says he also put her in the nurses’ wing even though he is taking a risk. He does not want her to feel like she is a patient. Hockstader says it is unorthodox and has nothing to do with neurosurgery. He says Mrs. Venable expects him to perform the operation. John says he knows that and goes out.
Grace and George Holly see John and go in with him to visit Catherine. Grace says her dress is pretty, and Catherine says Sebastian bought it for her. George likes the suit he got from Sebastian. George says they should talk about business. He mentions their lawyer, but Grace rattles on about how Mrs. Venable worshipped Sebastian. John asks about a letter, and Grace says it was about how Sebastian had a heart attack. Grace tells Catherine that no one knows she is there. George wants to talk with Catherine alone to sign papers. John asks her if that is all right and gives her some cigarettes before going out. George says Sebastian left a will leaving her and him $50,000 each. George says there is a problem with the will. Grace says Catherine babbled a story about how Sebastian lived and died. George says they need written permission to keep her there. Catherine asks her mother if she signed papers committing her to Lions View. Grace refers to “one little operation,” and Catherine says that is a lobotomy in case of insanity. Catherine furiously tells Grace not to let them do it, and she goes out.
Catherine tries to escape in the halls. She goes through a door and finds herself on a runway above the insane patients in the large room. They watch her, but she cannot open other door. One man grabs her foot, and she screams. She escapes, but another man grabs her ankle. The patients are making noise, and a bell rings. She goes out the door she came in. John finds her, and she embraces him. Grace with George asks about the noise. Grace explains why Catherine ran out. John asks the nurse to get a doctor, and he joins Catherine in her room. She asks where he will cut her brain and asks if her hair will be shaved. She says he was going to help her. She cries for him to help her. She asks if he is going to operate, and he says he does not know yet. She says she bothers him, and he agrees. A young doctor comes in, and John tells him three ccs. He asks her to trust him, and she says she wants to. John goes out, and she says his eyes are so blue. She lies on the bed, and the doctor gives her a shot in the arm. He takes her pulse as she talks about Sebastian. The doctor tells her to relax and goes out. She drifts off to sleep.
Dr. Cukrowicz meets with Mrs. Venable in a room, and she gives him a book of poetry by Sebastian. He learns he wrote one poem each year. She says he wrote no poem last summer. He asks how he died, and she says it was a heart attack. She asks how Catherine knows about the letter. She says there is no letter but only a death certificate. He wants to see it because it is important. She says he will have it tomorrow with permission to operate. He asks her about the personal life of her son, and she says he was chaste as if he had taken a vow. She says only she satisfied his desires. Only she was pure enough for her son. He asks if she wants to see Catherine, and they go out.
Catherine is lying on her bed when John and Mrs. Venable come in. He says she is just coming out of sedation. He calls her name to waken her. She sits up, and Mrs. Venable says, “Hello.” Catherine wanted to see her before that, but Mrs. Venable says St. Mary’s would not let her have visitors. Mrs. Venable says she seems disturbed. Catherine says she is disturbed because she forced her mother to sign the paper authorizing the doctor. Mrs. Venable sees no purpose in this and goes out.
Mrs. Venable goes into a visiting room to wait and picks up a magazine. John comes in with Catherine who says she did not want to take her place last summer. She says Sebastian asked her to go in her place. Mrs. Venable says he died last summer. A nurse comes in and takes a patient out as her relatives leaving crying. Mrs. Venable says Catherine fell in love with Sebastian last summer, but Catherine says she tried to give him tender love. Mrs. Venable says she and her son had a special relationship. She tells how she could touch his hand so that he would finish his summer poem. She criticizes Catherine who admits that she failed him. Catherine agrees that something was broken. She accuses Mrs. Venable and Sebastian of always taking. Mrs. Venable says they only needed each other. Catherine says his mother lost her attraction. She says Mrs. Venable had a stroke. Catherine says he used them as bait to procure for him. Sebastian was shy, and they both made contacts for him. Catherine asks her aunt if she wants to cut the truth out of her brain. Mrs. Venable appeals to the doctor to cut her brain. Mrs. Venable faints and collapses in a chair. Hockstader comes in, and John says she fainted, but Mrs. Venable says it is only dizziness. She asks Hockstader to help her to her car. John goes out.
Catherine walks away. Mrs. Venable and Hockstader come out of the room, and she insists on the operation and will not talk to him until it is set.
Catherine goes to the runway again and looks at the patients sitting below. They turn and look at her. She steps over the railing, and some women laugh. She holds on to the rail as they laugh. A nurse comes in. The young doctor comes up behind Catherine and lifts her back over the railing to remove her.
Hockstader comes into John’s office and asks what would happen if she had jumped. Hockstader accuses her of causing a riot. He refers to her history of accusing men of raping her. John says she was provoked to put her cigarette in that woman’s hand. Hockstader asks if he will operate tomorrow. John says he needs more time. Hockstader goes to the phone and starts to call another doctor at the Seattle Clinic. John asks him to let him visit Mrs. Venable tomorrow and suggests her money might go to the Seattle Clinic. Hockstader backs down and cancels his call.
A nurse, Catherine, Hockstader, and John come into the Venable house. Miss Foxfire says she has things for John in the dining room. Mrs. Venable comes down the elevator and sees that Grace and George Holly are there too. John asks the Hollys to wait in the garden. Mrs. Venable hands John the death certificate. He notes the body was damaged by a fall. She says the coffin came sealed, and he asks if there were rumors. She denies there were rumors and walks off with Hockstader to show him the garden. John joins Catherine who is looking out the window. He is going to give her a different injection, and she takes off her jacket. She counts backwards from a hundred as the shot is given. She says she feels funny, and he tells her to close her eyes for a minute. He asks her to give him her resistance to the truth. She says she never resists the truth. She says Sebastian said that truth is at the bottom of a bottomless world. He asks her to open her eyes and asks why she tried to kill herself. She asks if that will help everyone get what they want. She asks if he is trying to hypnotize her. She feels peculiar. He asks her to put her hands in his and give him her resistance. She says there is no resistance in her hands. He asks if she will tell the truth exactly, and she says she will. She has trouble standing and asks him to tell her so that she can. He stands and tells her to stand. She stands and feels dizzy. She asks him to hold her and embraces him. She kisses him. Hockstader comes in and tells him to bring her outside. He says she is ready, and they go out to the garden.
On a patio are sitting Mrs. Venable, Hockstader, George and Grace Holly, and behind are the nurse and Miss Foxfire. John asks Catherine to tell the true story from the start. She says it began with Sebastian’s birth, but John asks her how last summer began. She says it started at the oaks. The next morning she started writing in her diary in third person. She did not go out except for a brief walk. One morning Sebastian told her to get up, and he took her downtown to get a passport. He said his mother could not go abroad and that she would go with him. He took her to Paris, but at Amalfi she took his arm. He pulled away. She says she wanted to show her appreciation for his kindness. She says he became restless and could not write his summer poem. Mrs. Venable holds up the book with no poem for 1937. Mrs. Venable asks if she will admit what happened, how she murdered him. John asks what happened. Catherine says suddenly he was no longer young. They started going to the public beach in the afternoon. Mrs. Venable objects and says he would not go there. Catherine says they went to the free beach. He bought her a bathing suit that was white but became transparent in the water. He dragged her into the water, and she came out looking naked. John asks why he did that. She says he wanted her to attract attention to procure for him. His poem book was empty. He no longer needed her, and he let her wear a dark suit. She kept her journal until they met later. Hungry youths followed him, and he tipped them for favors. In the last week they stopped going there. On a hot day Sebastian was wearing white and taking white pills. She knew his heart was bothering him. They went to a table near a fence where a band of children were gathered calling out to him for food. She says they made gobbling noises. She says it was too late to go because he was not well. He said beggars are a social disease and advised her not to look at them. John tells her to go on. She says the children began to make music and loud noises on metal instruments they made. John asks about Sebastian. She says he was terrified because he recognized some of them. She says he accepted all as the way things are. He never took any action about anything. He said to make them stop that, and she says that was the first time he tried to correct a situation. He fled, and she followed him to the street. She suggested they go toward the harbor to get a taxi. He asked if she was mad. He did not want to go back there. She did not want to climb the hill in the heat; but Sebastian went that way up the street, followed by the children and the noise. He ran up the hilly street and tried to escape. He was trapped on all sides by the children and the buildings. The only way he could go was up the slope of the street. She says he ran and ran. John asks where the streets led to. She says he never got anywhere. On the top of the hill there was a ruined temple. The children overtook him, and she heard him scream. Then she screamed. Catherine screams, and John takes hold of her. He asks what happened then. She found him lying naked on the broken stones. He looked as if they had devoured him. She falls on the ground and cries as she describes Sebastian lying on the stones. John goes to Mrs. Venable, and she speaks to John as if he were his son who wanted to see those sights. They go in the house. Catherine gets up and walks to the garden.
Inside Mrs. Venable tells John that he (Sebastian) and her will always have each other. She goes into the elevator. Hockstader tells John that the girl’s story is probably true. Grace asks John if her daughter can go home, and he says she will. John asks George to take care of his mother. John calls to Catherine, and she goes to him and takes his hand. They walk into the house.
This psychological drama explores mental illness and the confused relationships that can result. The peculiar relationship between a wealthy woman and her unusual son led to his death and her neurosis. Her niece was also affected by how he died, and the rich woman blamed her for his death and thought she was insane. A good doctor manages to find out the truth and heal the niece, but this causes her aunt to slip into her own insanity because of the loss of her obsessive relationship with her son.