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The Night of the Iguana

The Night of the Iguana(1964)

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The ground rules in 1964's The Night of the Iguana are pretty clear: the sinners and misfits are much more interesting and much more alive than the saved and the righteous. Those that don't struggle with temptation, push up against adversity and, literally and metaphorically, howl at the moon, simply aren't as human as those who do. In that regard, Shannon (Richard Burton), the disgraced Virginia minister who's sunken into an exile of being a guide for bus tours into Mexico, is very human. For carrying on with a young, vulnerable Sunday school teacher and losing his congregation, this Tennessee Williams hero has been sent to his own purgatory: shepherding a group of tightly-wound Baptist female college teachers through south-of-the-border backwaters.

But being stuck on a bus with prim sticks in the mud isn't the only punishment in Shannon's purgatory. Also being chaperoned by group leader Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall), the primmest of the prim, is Charlotte (Sue Lyon), an underage cutie with a fully-grown body and sense of sexual mischief and a habit of turning up in Shannon's hotel room unannounced at incriminating hours of the night. The guy's trying his damnedest to only look and not touch.

The ordeal is driving Shannon to drink and to breakdown, and the man and his tour come crashing down in Puerto Vallarta, where he speeds the bus past the group's hotel (where Miss Fellowes is expecting a telegram from Shannon's boss about the guide's past), pulls up to the rougher hotel run by old friend Maxine (Ava Gardner), yanks the distributor head out of the bus and informs one and all that this is where they're staying.

It's there that most of the action in John Huston's adaptation of Williams' play transpires. Unlike nearly all the 1950s movies based on his works (including A Streetcar Named Desire and The Fugitive Kind), Williams did not write the Night of the Iguana screenplay, but he's in good hands here. It's precisely because of movies like The Night of the Iguana that Huston earned his reputation for being such a sensitive adaptor of novels and plays. At his best, the man who brought Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, W.R. Burnett's The Asphalt Jungle and, later, Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King to the big screen could honor his source material's vision and still put his adventurous stamp on a story.

To that end, Huston gives The Night of the Iguana a Williams-worthy tone that's lurid, darkly-comic, yet still dramatic and a little grim. While the other early-1960s Williams movies were made in color, this is definitely best served by black-and-white; color simply would have been too pretty for Shannon's stark story. The title refers to the dark night of the soul experienced by Shannon, after the truth of his past has been learned by Miss Fellowes, the distributor head has been wrested away by the tour's regular bus driver (James Ward) and the ladies' group has left Shannon behind. Lusty, recently-widowed Maxine (given great fire by Gardner in her earthiest performance) has her eyes on Shannon after the bus tour leaves, and he also strikes up an uneasy relationship with more sedate Hannah (Deborah Kerr), a self-proclaimed "New England spinster" who travels the world with her aging poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti), living on the handouts they get from her sketches of tourists and his recitations (in one memorable scene, Maxine calls her, with newfound respect, a "hustler"). Hannah, an interesting mixture of naiveté and worldliness, has a calming effect on agitated, drunk Shannon, whom the women have had to tie up in a hammock (much like the iguana Maxine's beach-boy "employees" have captured).

An emotional storm passes in The Night of the Iguana, and though the story does give the characters some resolution, their struggle continues after the movie does, and that's one of the appealing things about it. In addition to Gardner's outstanding performance (along with Patricia Neal in Hud, it's the early-1960s' most potent dose of 40-ish female sexuality), Burton gets what might be his best screen role, too, with Shannon certainly reflecting the actor's own personal demons (though he didn't fare so well with the schlockier later Williams adaptation, Boom). Meanwhile, Kerr gives depth to the tricky role of Hannah, Lyon (of Lolita gets to play another teen tease in a remarkable movie and Hall makes a hell of a shrew (the former Dark Shadows regular got an Oscar nomination for playing Miss Fellowes).

They all bask in the heated atmosphere of The Night of the Iguana. The importance of Gabriel Figueroa's black-and-white cinematography becomes even more clear with the inclusion of the vintage promotional short On the Trail of the Iguana, which shows just how beautiful the shooting location was, on the movie's DVD (which is available separately or as part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection boxed set). The short does a nice job in focusing on Huston's challenges filming the tale, while the new short Night of the Iguana: Huston's Gamble concentrates on the major hubbub created by having a star-studded Hollywood production (the entourage of which also included Burton's paramour, Elizabeth Taylor) plop down on the remote Mexican coast. It's more than a little ironic that the location was chosen for its wild beauty yet the movie was at least partially responsible for rampant real-estate development in Puerto Vallarta after The Night of the Iguana's release.

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by Paul Sherman