Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
John Huston's The Night of the Iguana is a marvelous Tennessee Williams adaptation that shows the director's talent for visualizing difficult thematic concepts at full strength. He allows his strong cast of individualistic movie stars the freedom to seize the screen and really do something with their parts. This story of a failed minister being hounded to the ends of the Earth (in this case, the wilds of a pre-development Puerto Vallarta) is satisfying at all levels, from ribald comedy to poetic glimpses of what lies beyond human desperation.
Wayward Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) is at the end of his rope. Dismissed from his Virginia pulpit for an indiscretion with a young woman, he's conducting Mexican bus tours for a run-down Texas outfit. His present trip with a group of lady teachers from a private Christian college has been a disaster. Group leader Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall) has not only accused Shannon of raking off expenses and letting the women eat bad food, she's caught him several times with the under-aged troublemaker Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon). Desperate to keep his job, Shannon literally hijacks the bus to a seaside hotel, hoping to make amends and prevent Fellowes from contacting the States to get him fired. Proprietress Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) does her best for Shannon but really hopes he'll be canned so he can replace her late husband and help run the hotel. Amid all the chaos, penniless sketch artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her grandfather Nonno, a famous poet (Cyril Delevanti) show up to beg a roof for the night. With Charlotte still trying to corner our hero and Fellows after his scalp, things would really look hopeless for Shannon if it weren't for the combined interest of Maxine and Hannah. Night's coming on, and it's hard to say what will happen.
The Night of the Iguana is a little bit like Joseph Conrad's Outcast of the Islands, at least in the sense that its hero finds himself running further into the wild to escape his misdeeds in civilization. Unlike the crimes of Conrad's Peter Willems, Tennessee Williams' Reverend Shannon weaknesses seem mild: Lost in a philosophical quandary about his role in the church, he failed to separate his concern for a desperate young girl from his personal desires. It's happening again with the jailbait Jezebel Charlotte. Shannon isn't tempted, exactly, but he definitely fails to keep the predatory Charlotte at arms' length.
Shannon couldn't bear the sanctimonious disapproval of his Virginia congregation, so being shut in with a busload of spinsters is a new circle of Hell. Williams doesn't lend this chorus of church ladies much in the way of positive qualities. Poor Miss Peebles (Mary Boylan) spends her entire role with Montezuma's Revenge and looking for a bathroom. Judith Fellowes is apparently intended to be an unconscious lesbian lusting after Charlotte, but there's little evidence of this in the film, unless we're required to interpret the woman's midnight appeal to the (absent) Charlotte as proof. Actually, forty years later Grayson Hall's Miss Fellowes is the unsung characterization in The Night of the Iguana's acting ensemble; it's not easy to keep a role like that from collapsing into caricature. Weirdly, Ms. Hall was the film's only actor to be nominated for an Oscar.
Hoping to escape the tyranny of desire, Shannon ends up a ping-pong ball among a succession of females with plans, and almost has a nervous breakdown. The balancing act between outright farce and a deeply symbolic black comedy plays with religious iconography as Shannon is put through a satire of martyrdom. He's so addled that he walks on broken glass like a penitente, and when he wraps a stolen distributor wire from the tour bus around his waist it seems like a lash for self-flagellation, or perhaps a devil's tail. The women that care for him most bind him to a hammock like a torture victim so he won't do anything foolish. And then there's the titular symbol of the Iguana, a poor dumb reptile tied to a porch-post and "at the end of his rope" just like Shannon.
Shannon thinks of solving his problems with a "long swim to China" but finds that both hope and inspiration can still be had by an outcast at the end of the Earth. He already admires Maxine, the earthy, warm-hearted survivor with a short fuse for a temper. She admits she's in a trap, keeping a pair of maracas-playing beach boys (Fidelmar Durán and Roberto Leyva) handy for whenever the sexual tension runs too high. As for the spinster Hannah Jelkes, she has a few lessons to teach Shannon. She has no firm place in the world and yet contents herself with the task of caring for her ancient father.
The Night of the Iguana succeeds in a gambit that's fallen flat in many great movies and plays. Hannah's feeble, doddering father seems destined to die on screen as just another joke. Hannah talks about old "Nonno" stumbling around for ten years trying to write a final poem. Since this is a John Huston film we get the notion that the ancient poet will serve as another Huston-style testament to failure and folly. But the old man's mind is suddenly clear. He rolls his wheelchair out under the moon to dictate the final poem to Hannah, and it's a winner, a beautiful piece of work about finding meaning and redemption when all seems darkest. For once, we feel the same elation as the characters on screen -- even Shannon is dumbfounded at the old man's genius. John Huston also seems released from his frequent sense of despair, as his adaptation doesn't twist Williams' work into another ode to human calamity.
Richard Burton is on task, and doesn't hide behind his voice or a few sneering expressions. Although the other main actors all went on to make more pictures, The Night of the Iguana is arguably the last, best work of each. Ava Gardner seems more "herself" than in any other picture, a barefoot near-hedonist with a welcoming heart. It's practically her last film of quality. Deborah Kerr quit the movies altogether after only a few more outings; before this picture they're almost all exceptionally good and afterwards there's only The Gypsy Moths and Casino Royale. As for Sue Lyon, she's fine as a dangerous tease, but her entire quality output would be restricted to this film plus Lolita, 7 Women and perhaps The Flim-Flam Man.
Skip Ward is the upstanding bus driver who gets knocked silly defending Charlotte's questionable honor; Emilio Fernández (The Wild Bunch) has a brief but funny role as a beach bartender who refuses to sell Charlotte a drink, while his glum B-girls eye Charlotte's skimpy shorts.
Warners' DVD of The Night of the Iguana is a sharp enhanced B&W transfer that conveys the sleepy tones of Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography. The soundtrack gives us a subdued score by the under-appreciated Benjamin Frankel (A Kid for Two Farthings, The Curse of the Werewolf).
Vintage extras are a teaser, a trailer and a lengthy short promotional subject called On the Trail of the Iguana that has many behind-the-scenes color shots of Huston, both at work and sitting on a dock pretending to be writing beneath an inspirational sunset. The reason for the elaborate film becomes clear when Elizabeth Taylor shows up with new boyfriend Richard Burton; MGM wanted to milk the publicity angle of the world's most famous couple for all it was worth.
Forty years later, the aim of the new featurette Huston's Gamble hasn't really advanced. It concentrates almost solely on the idea that John Huston courted disaster by gathering all of his "volatile" stars into one film. Since the show isn't willing to dish the kind of dirt needed to back up that stated purpose we have to be content with a narrator's vague assurances that anything might go haywire with Liz and Dick at large. Admittedly, almost everyone attached to The Night of the Iguana is dead or unavailable, but we still learn very little. Producer Ray Stark passed away in 2004 yet the IMDB still lists him as working on a remake with Jeremy Irons. The IMDB also lists a Serbo-Croatian version filmed in 2000 with no credits except for a "Tay Stark" that's either an offspring or a typo. Perhaps they're the same film?
We do see a repeat (from the vintage film) of Huston's publicity gambit that made a splashy photo layout in Life magazine: In a pre-filming publicity ceremony, Huston presented all of his stars with loaded derringers, to make the expected fireworks easier should tempers run high. What a perfect way to make a potentially troublesome cast behave -- dare them to pull the trigger! Huston was a showman who understood psychology.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Night of the Iguana rates:
Supplements: New featurette The Night of the Iguana: Houston's Gamble, Vintage featurette On the Trail of the Iguana, Trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson