Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)

The Night of the Iguana, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play by director John Huston and Anthony Veiller, is simultaneously lighter and more opaque than other Williams adaptations like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. The action follows a disgraced clergyman, Rev. Shannon (Richard Burton), who has been reduced to curating bus tours in Mexico. His past starts to catch up with him when the hostile leader of a tour group (Grayson Hall) discovers his dalliance with Charlotte (Sue Lyon), an underage girl under her charge. In an attempt to stall his ruin, Shannon waylays the group at a rundown hotel near Puerto Vallarta which is run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), an earthy American woman who harbors feelings for the erstwhile man of God. The arrival at the hotel of itinerant painter Hannah (Deborah Kerr) and her aged poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti) adds to the chaos of the scene, even while Hannah attempts to smooth everything over. The meat of the film is an emotional night of breakdowns and soul-searching conversation, climaxing in the completion of the poet’s last poem. Ultimately, The Night of the Iguana has something of a happier ending than one would generally expect from a Williams piece, although not without some ambiguity.

It sort of sounds like a wacky rom-com, doesn’t it? There are certainly moments where the drama almost seems to be played for laughs. At first glance, Burton’s “defrocked” priest is an over-the-top caricature: often drunk, wide-eyed and indignant, feigning innocence when caught red-handed. Even in despair, he seems to be playing a part rather than truly suffering. It is in his quiet moments that Burton peels back the layers to reveal Shannon’s pain. Though boorish on the outside, he’s really a deeply faithful man who loves God and all his creations, but who sees humanity’s hypocrisy as the ultimate disappointment. He is a keen observer of human nature, able to cut others to the core when he lashes out. It is up to Maxine and Hannah to restore his faith in humanity, and they both make the attempt in highly individual ways that would seem to represent the struggle between emotion and reason. Maxine is a hedonist, but she has a good heart and seems to genuinely care for Shannon. Meanwhile Hannah is more aloof, but it is her cool rationality and quiet faith that brings Shannon back to himself. Both Gardner and Kerr fill these roles memorably; it was fascinating to watch two actresses, a little bit beyond their prime, use their age and experience to truly provide their characters with the right sensibilities. Gardner in particular is riveting as a woman who knows she is no longer young, but still relies on her sexual appeal and presents a facade of independence while fearing the loneliness of growing older. Kerr is perfectly cast as her polar opposite: Hannah is not without feeling, but she has made her peace with being a “spinster,” and fills her life with travel and experience instead of companionship.

The Night of the Iguana is something of a departure from the typical “play-turned-film.” There is a fair amount of movement and action in the first half of the movie, during which the tour group is traveling through Mexico. Even when the location settles on Maxine’s inn, something about the direction and the performances of the three leads manages to seem more dynamic than many theatrical adaptations. Although shot in black and white, Huston still manages to capture the lush vegetation and beauty of his location, and indeed is credited with putting Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination. The scenery adds to the heat and passion of the production; it’s easy to imagine the sultry night bringing out ugly truths and revelations. In the final estimation, the film belongs to its three leading performers, however. Burton does seem to be chewing the scenery at times, but I think that this behavior is a part of his character: Shannon enjoys the dramatics and is even called out for it by Hannah at one point. Kerr and Gardner are a match for Burton, and all three are greatly entertaining to watch. As with most Williams, there’s a lot going on here, and it feels as though multiple viewings might be needed in order to truly understand the depths that the film is trying to reach, but for good direction, cinematography, and excellent performances, you really can’t go wrong here.

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