The Night of the Iguana, 1964.
Directed by John Huston.
Starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon.
A tense drama revolving around a defrocked American minister and the three highly-emotional women who enter his life when he heads for Mexico, seeking a new start as a tour operator.
After being defrocked from the ministry, Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Burton) is leading a ladies’ bus tour of Mexico’s churches and religious sites. Teenage seductress Charlotte (Sue Lyon, right after her starring role in Lolita) is determined to snag the interest of Shannon. Her protectress, Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall), the ringleader of the ladies’ tour, has a jealousy laden with lesbian undertones. The conflict between Fellowes and Shannon intensifies when the young girl slips into Shannon’s room one night and, of course, Fellowes catches them and vows to have Shannon fired.
The film becomes remarkable after Shannon takes control of the bus and whisks them all to his old haunt, an inn atop the hill at Mismaloya, outside Puerta Vallarta. He sabotages the bus, thinking there’ll be no chance to contact the tour company and have him fired. The inn is run by the wild and raucous Maxine Faulk, played brilliantly by Ava Gardner. She defends, even applauds Shannon’s unruly character and opens her doors to the group plus a traveling poet and his granddaughter. She is Hannah (Deborah Kerr), a ‘New England spinster,’ who turns out to be more liberal and forgiving than the others.
With Tennessee Williams masterful play as the benchmark and a script (by Anthony Veiller) filled with sexual tension on many levels (for 1964), Huston kept most of the cameras trained on the sets. Even with massive and gorgeous jungle landscape flowing down the mountains to the sea, very few minutes of the film showed the magnificent natural setting. Those that did, were intensely memorable, including a ludicrous fight scene when the bus driver defends Charlotte at the palapa cantina or when Maxine douses her frustrations surfside against the buff bare chests of her two “beach boys.”
The film whizzes for only a minute or so through the streets of old Puerta Vallarta, a city that considers its history pre- and post-Night of the Iguana. Huston put his huge Hollywood personalities into a jungle isolation where fireworks were predicted and a classic was born. There wasn’t even a road to Mismaloya at the time. The jungle resort was built on the hill for the film, including housing for the 125 person crew. Burton was accompanied by Elizabeth Taylor, still married to Eddie Fisher at the time; their love-nest was exposed by scandal snapping paparazzi even then. The angst of 1964 shows up in the longing of a return to innocence and Shannon’s constant search for moments and glimpses of beauty. A struggle with God is bookended by Shannon’s church ouster and the final recitation by the poet prior to his death. Both meditations on human frailty point to our dependence on each other for redemption.
Hannah (Kerr) is the surprising hero who says “nothing human disgusts me” and helps Shannon give his demons “the slip” in the unforgettable scene with Burton laced into a veranda hammock. The other surprise, watching it now, is the portentous ‘green’ speech by Shannon about man’s inhumanity to God and how we’ve poisoned the planet and wreaked havoc for nature. Buy that man another rum and coke.
The film, of course, stands on its own and if you’re lucky enough to catch it on a big screen, all the better. But the DVD collection adds a wealth of insight for the film enthusiast with the short films it includes. “On the Trail of the Iguana” is a gorgeous 15-minute documentary that makes me wish they had shot “Iguana” in color. It includes scenes of Huston in his magnificent director role and also shows some of the process of building a set in the jungle. The scenes of old P.V. in the documentary are tranquil and colonial and give a sense of the city before it became a busy tourist mecca.
The short film, “Night of the Iguana: Huston’s Gamble” brings all the chemical and emotional components to the forefront. It also underlines the context that during the filming, President Kennedy was shot and a distraught Huston made the decision to go on filming even that day. He regarded their set as a crucible of the fragile human condition and decided the film would benefit from their intense feelings of despair. An interesting note: Afterward, Huston gave up his U.S. citizenship.
Review by Sheila Seclearr
Outta the Clear Blue