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THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, 1964
Movie Review

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THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA MOVIE POSTER
THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, 1964
Movie Reviews

Directed by John Huston,
Starring: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon
Review by Virginia De Witt



SYNOPSIS:

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon has been dismissed from his parish over an affair involving a young Sunday school teacher. Following his disgrace, the only job he can hold is as a tour bus guide in Mexico where he finds himself responsible for a group of middle aged women from a “Baptist female college” in Texas, along with one very young and precocious student, Charlotte. Charlotte persists in pursuing Shannon, despite his pleas for her to leave him alone. In spite of his efforts, he finds himself once again in potential trouble as Charlotte sneaks into his hotel room one night in an attempt to seduce him. The next day Shannon diverts the tour to an out of the way hotel in Puerto Vallarta run by his old friend, Maxine, in an effort to avoid the wrath of Charlotte’s chaperone, Miss Fellowes, as well as her determination to report Shannon and have him fired. At the hotel, the church group, a quickly disintegrating Shannon, now on the verge of a breakdown, and Maxine are joined by a struggling artist, Hannah, and her dying grandfather. This unlikely group, isolated in the Mexican countryside, together must confront their various desires, fears and temptations regarding life and relationships.

OSCAR winner for Best Costume Design

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REVIEW:

This movie, along with Elia Kazan’s adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), is one of the best screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ work. Interestingly, it is the one of the few adaptations of his work where Williams himself did not write the screenplay. John Huston and Anthony Veiller adapted Williams’ play of the same name which had been a major success on Broadway in 1961. Huston and Veiller are faithful to their source material, however, and the movie deals with classic Williams’ preoccupations such as the fate of outcasts in conventional society, the toll of secrecy and hypocrisy on human relationships and the quest for compassion and understanding that the social misfit is continually on. Williams’ philosophy is summed up by Hannah (Deborah Kerr) at one point in the story when she says to the Rev. Shannon (Richard Burton), “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent...” This point of view is thoroughly shared by Huston and his understanding of the work is evidenced by the superb cast he gathered to plumb the depths of this emotionally demanding material.

Richard Burton was at the height of his career in 1964. He starred in an acclaimed “Hamlet” on the stage that year, and on screen was also seen in the epic “Becket” with Peter O’Toole. His performance as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon may be the winner of this impressive artistic trifecta, however. He is perfectly cast and his strengths, which are a passionate intellectual intensity combined with an emotional vulnerability only heighten the impact he has in the role. The fact that Shannon is so obviously driven by demons, the most visible of which is drink, paired with what is known about Burton’s own weakness in this area, fairly or not, also lends the performance authenticity.

The movie is further aided by the terrific chemistry that Burton shares with his leading ladies, particularly Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Each of these women in the story represents an aspect of Shannon. Gardner, as the hard living and earthy hotel owner, Maxine, gives the best performance of her career. She is relaxed, funny, and passionate. There is a bawdy physicality to Maxine that Gardner understands completely and her energy matches up with Shannon’s increasingly manic presence. Hannah, the self-described “New England spinster pushing 40”, embodies a quiet sanity that Shannon can remember and wants desperately to contact again. We can see how this man, tortured by his own desires and failures, would be attracted to her calmness, as well as her refusal to pass judgment on him or anyone else. Hannah is the only character Shannon trusts enough to talk to, and thus feels safe revealing something of himself to her, other than the drunken bounder everyone believes him to be.

Burton and Kerr’s rapport is quiet, yet powerful. It anchors the scene that is the heart of the film, the dark night of the title in which, just as a local iguana is tied up in preparation to be devoured, so does Shannon find himself strung up on a hammock by Maxine and Hannah after he has thrown himself into the sea in a panicked attempt to escape the reality of his situation. As the night wears on, all the principals will have their vulnerabilities exposed; each of them “... one of God’s creatures at the end of his rope...”. It is especially evident here how Williams uses Hannah to channel his voice. She says to Shannon, in an effort to explain why she accepts him with all his imperfections, “I respect anybody who has had to fight and howl for his decency .... and his bit of goodness, far more than I respect those lucky ones who’ve had theirs handed out to them at birth and never afterwards snatched away from them by unbearable torments.”

The hammock scene is harrowing but it is followed by a beautiful one in which Hannah’s ancient grandfather recites his last poem. Cyril Delevanto as the old man, is both powerful and delicate in his reading. The stark black and white cinematography, as well as Huston’s framing of the principals, Maxine and Shannon in one shot and Hannah with her grandfather at a low angle in another, as well as the editing between them allows the scene to build to a powerful emotional climax to the whole dramatic night.

Huston’s care in casting pays off by way of the other stand outs in the cast, which include Grayson Hall as the angry and repressed Miss Fellowes. Amazingly she was the only actor in this movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for her work. Sue Lyon, fresh from playing a similar role in Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita” (1962), is effective as Shannon’s alluring juvenile temptress.

“The Night of the Iguana” is rich in complex characterizations, a story with psychological depth and a group artists working at their peak. It is an extraordinary record of one the best plays by a great American playwright.

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