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

Synopsis:
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.

Genres:

Review:
As noted by AllMovieGuide.com, 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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One Response to “Night of the Iguana, The (1964)”

  1. Must-see – as a perfectly realized film in every aspect. Personally, I consider it flawless.

    ~but that’s because it’s my favorite film, and continues to be (ever since I first saw it as a teenager).

    That doesn’t mean I think it’s the best movie ever made. I’m not sure that there *is* just one film that I could realistically award that singular distinction. But what I can say – as is hinted at in the assessment (“While the storyline itself merits nearly endless discussion and debate…”) – is that I find a richness in this film which has yet to run dry. I probably watch it at least once a year.

    I’ve read Williams’ play a number of times. I was fortunate to see a Broadway revival in 1996 (and was particularly taken with the performances of Cherry Jones as Hannah and William Petersen as Shannon). However, as much as I admire the play …I find it a little over-written (i.e., some peripheral characters are left out of the film version) and I feel the film is not only a sensitive and careful adaptation, but it improves on the play. (Some do not agree with me and remain Williams purists.)

    In director Huston’s vision, ‘TNOTI’ is sharpened for the screen, so that its concerns are crystal-clear.

    And what are those concerns?: for me (and to put it simply), the film’s main concern is connected to ‘What is the meaning of life?’ I find ‘TNOTI’ to be a wonderfully philosophical film – not one that is just a bunch of heady talk (though there is some of that) but is also entertaining and provocative. I suppose that combination appeals to me directly.

    About his play ‘The Boys in the Band’, Mart Crowley once said that all of that play’s characters are different facets of his own personality. I’ve wondered if Williams could have said the same about this work of his (knowing what I know about him, from having read most of his work, his memoirs and John Lahr’s recent biography).

    Around the time he wrote ‘TNOTI’, Williams went through a spiritual evolution (as opposed to a ‘crisis’) and that experience seems to move through the piece. Without spelling it all out …those most familiar with the man may see reflections of his inner being in the main characters he presents.

    And, appropriately, Williams set this experience in a sort of dream atmosphere. As such, naturally it’s remote – but it’s also a bit surreal (being on unfamiliar / foreign soil).

    The film is essentially about the search for …something… resembling God …while mucking around in the confusing, conflicting, day-to-day existence of being a flawed human being …something we all are. It’s a story in which people take stock of themselves …something we all periodically need to do to improve ourselves.

    Some have told me they find this film depressing – and that comment will give me pause. Because I find the film …well, I won’t say ‘uplifting’ …but encouraging. I think it reminds the viewer to just keep going. There are going to be bad times because life can throw curve balls. …But keep going.

    Though all three leads (Burton, Gardner, Kerr) have often been quite good elsewhere, I don’t feel I’ve seen any of them better than they are here. To me, it seems they were born to play these roles. The truthfulness they exhibit as these complex characters is fierce, uncompromising and it hits my very core.

    Lyon, Hall and Delevanti are also pitch-perfect. Special mention must also go to DP Figueroa. Above all …though Huston is my favorite director anyway, with this piece he comes up to the plate and stands tall.

    Cinema has given me an endless amount of enrichment – but, with this film, it has also given me a personal present. I couldn’t be more grateful. 😉

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