Night of the Iguana, The (1964)

“This is a test of strength between two men and a crate of wetheads.”

Night of the Iguana Poster

An alcoholic ex-minister (Richard Burton) working as a tour guide in Mexico brings his customers to a hotel run by his widowed friend Maxine (Ava Gardner). While flirting with a beautiful blonde teenager (Sue Lyon) in the tour group, he’s caught and chastised by her furious guardian (Grayson Hall); meanwhile, an artist (Deborah Kerr) travelling with her elderly father (Cyril Delevanti) arrives at the hotel and new sexual tensions soon emerge.


As noted by, writer/director/actor John Huston is known for telling “stories about independent and adventurous men struggling for their individuality” — and Night of the Iguana (adapted from Tennessee Williams’ 1961 Broadway play, based on his 1948 short story) fits this description aptly (though Burton’s ex-reverend is perhaps less adventurous than desperate and spiritually un-moored). The powerful opening scene sets the stage for Burton’s incipient downfall, as he attempts to deliver a short, impassioned sermon to a flock that’s entirely unwilling to hear him expose his vulnerability. (He boldly poses questions such as, “How weak is man… How often do we stray from the straight and narrow?”) Despite enjoining them not to “turn [their] backs on the God of love and compassion”, they do so anyway, and he is ousted from his position, thus embarking upon the surreally soul-searching adventure that comprises the remainder of the film — all taking place in the then-isolated Mexican beach town of Puerto Vallarta (now a popular modern resort; click here to read more about the film’s on-location shooting).

Night of the Iguana is essentially a character study, following the existential crisis of a man whose family legacy of both spiritual leadership and irresistible “appetites” continues to haunt him. While fending off lust for a nubile young blonde (Lyons) — whose reciprocal interest verges on either harassment or devilish “intervention” — he finds himself dogged by Hall, who functions as a potent reminder of the sanctimonious judgment he’s tried unsuccessfully to run away from. He relies on the steady friendship of earthy Maxine (Gardner) to ground him, literally alighting on her property as a source of refuge, then embarks on a continued quest-for-solace once ethereal yet pragmatic Hannah Jelkes (Kerr) arrives with her elderly father. Gardner and Kerr represent more than merely a traditional “love triangle” in this film: they offer alternative approaches to life, allowing Burton to envision a way out of the quagmire of lustful escapism he’s been plagued by his entire existence.

While the storyline itself merits nearly endless discussion and debate (that Williams sure could spin a meaty yarn!), Night of the Iguana works remarkably well as a cinematic venture as well. As usual, Huston’s directorial hand is not only steady but incisive, framing characters and situations with a precision aimed at not-so-subtly influencing our perspective. Gabriel Figueroa’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, and the location sets are inspired. Meanwhile, performances across the board are top-notch — from Burton’s tour-de-force lead to the various female roles (not just Hall, but Kerr and Gardner as well). This classic “morality tale” is one all film fanatics should see at least once, and will likely enjoy returning to.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Richard Burton as Lawrence Shannon
    Night of the Iguana Burton
  • Ava Gardner as Maxine Faulk
    Night of the Iguana Gardner
  • Deborah Kerr as Hannah Jelkes
    Night of the Iguana Kerr
  • Grayson Hall as Judith Fellowes
    Night of the Iguana Hall
  • Masterful direction by Huston
    Night of the Iguana Direction
    Night of the Iguana Direction2
    Night of the Iguana Direction3
  • Gabriel Figueroa’s b&w cinematography
    Night of the Iguana Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a fine film and one of the best adaptations of Williams’ work.



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