Much to his surprise, Appellate Judge Erick Harper discovered that The Night of the Iguana is not a low-budget sci-fi flick about atomically-mutated giant lizards. Unless you count Richard Burton, that is.
Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind or violent.
Two of humanity's basic weaknesses, the need for human relationships and the need to believe in something, anything, are laid bare in this film adaptation of a play by the incisive Tennessee Williams.
Facts of the Case
When you're a defrocked Anglican minister, good work is apparently hard to come by. The Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton, Cleopatra, The Longest Day), exiled from his profession due to conduct unbecoming a minister (with a young, attractive parishioner, no less) finds himself as a tour guide in Mexico for quite possibly the most impoverished tour company ever. His latest tour group is comprised of the spinster faculty of a Baptist women's college—not exactly the most exciting group to be chauffeuring around Mexico, or at least it wouldn't be if not for the lovely, seductive, altogether too young Charlotte (Sue Lyon, fresh off her very similar iconic role in Lolita), niece to the spinsters' ringleader. Her aunt, Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall, That Darn Cat!), does her best to keep the underage temptress on a short leash, but Charlotte takes a liking to the much older Shannon almost immediately. Shannon does his best to avoid improprieties, at least at first, but being a man with a pronounced weakness for this sort of thing anyway, and given Charlotte's persistence, his resistance breaks down pretty quickly.
In a last-ditch attempt to save his career, his sanity, and probably his soul, Shannon commandeers the company tour bus and delivers the ladies not to their luxury hotel destination in Puerto Vallarta, but instead to an almost hidden hotel in the jungle owned and operated by Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner, On the Beach, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Killers). He really goes there to seek the help and advice of Maxine's husband Fred, but old Fred is dead. Even though it is the off-season and Maxine is more interested in making time with a pair of maraca-shaking boy toys, she agrees to take the party in, at least temporarily.
As Shannon spins further and further out of control, another pair of unusual travelers arrives at the hotel. Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr, Julius Caesar (1953), Black Narcissus, The King and I) arrives with her grandfather, whom she bills as "the world's oldest active poet." The two eke out an itinerant lifestyle doing poetry readings and selling on-the-spot portraits the world over in tourist hotels much like Maxine's. Hannah Jelkes is a woman acquainted with hardships, both of the external and internal variety, but she has attained a kind of inner peace and quiet strength that will allow her to help Shannon survive the darkest night of his life, The Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana, based on the Tennessee Williams play of the same name, focuses on one of Williams's groupings of fractured, fractious people. The conflicts among the characters in this film serve mostly to highlight their inner struggles. Each of the main characters, from Charlotte to Maxine to Miss Fellowes to Rev. Shannon himself, is searching for real, honest human contact, whether they know it or not. Following the basest instincts of human nature, most of the characters try to achieve this human contact by physical means. Disconnected and isolated as the outsider in her bus tour group of old spinsters, the young, voluptuous Charlotte pursues Shannon sexually not just for physical gratification but also simply to make a human connection. Shannon, defrocked for a similar experience when he was serving in the ministry, has strong inclinations to consent, partly due to natural physical desires (Charlotte is an undeniable hottie) but more to end his personal and emotional exile from human relationships. Maxine carries on her risible relationship with her cartoonish, maraca-shaking beach boys because she too knows no other path to contact that will make her feel at least somewhat human. This surprisingly adolescent view of human relationships afflicts all the main characters in the film with the exception of Kerr's Hannah Jelkes. Jelkes, for all her quasi-bohemian wanderings about the globe, is the single point of stability in the midst of all the psychological turmoil around her. She seems to lack even the vestigial religious faith exhibited by Shannon, but instead finds her peace in a belief in humanity and its ability to survive, love, and be lovely. This grounds the character, and allows her to shepherd Shannon through the deepest, darkest pit of his despair.
Human issues of this complexity would fail on screen if not for the outstanding performances of the lead players. Sue Lyon is remarkably good, giving emotional depth to what could have been a thankless eye-candy role. Likewise Grayson Hall, who gives a sense of reality and texture to her possessive, shrewish character, a probable lesbian closeted even to her own perception. Miss Fellowes could have been a shallow caricature but for Hall's performance.
The real heavy lifting in the acting department, however, comes from the triangle of Burton, Gardner, and Kerr. Burton's natural charisma and British accent lend him credibility as the educated, sophisticated Reverend Doctor Shannon, adding a patina of class to a character that is equal parts man of the cloth, huckster, lecher, and broken man. Playing Shannon requires him to be urbane, glib, and tortured, often all at the same time, especially when facing off against Kerr during his night of torment. Kerr, for her part, captures the eerie, wise serenity needed to make Hannah Jelke's character work as a believable deliverer for Shannon.
Perhaps the most difficult role is Gardner's. Maxine Faulk is at first glance all brashness and bluster, but under her bravado she is just as incomplete, vulnerable, and alone as anyone in the film. She seems at first to be well adjusted, self-sufficient, and happy-go-lucky, but we later see just how unfulfilling her life and young male distractions really are.
This disc from Warner Brothers is not exactly jam-packed with extras, among those present is a real gem: a featurette entitled "On the Trail of the Iguana." Shot during production of the film and narrated by director John Huston, Burton, and other participants, it provides shockingly good color footage of all the goings-on during the making of the film on location in Mexico. The footage is in surprisingly good condition; this is on-the-set material from 1963, and it looks better than the DVDs of some feature films I could mention. Among other juicy tidbits is the presence of Burton's flame Elizabeth Taylor, who accompanied him to Mexico even though she was still married to Eddie Fisher at the time. Another more recent featurette, entitled "Night of the Iguana: Huston's Gamble," confirms that Taylor and her entourage were something of a distraction during production. This doc gives details about the production, including Huston's masterful handling of what could have been a very explosive set of collaborators. Part of Huston's solution was to give everyone a gift: they each received a gold-plated derringer including bullets with the names of their co-stars engraved on them; this helped to acknowledge and defuse potential tensions.
Warner Brothers knows DVD, and the people there know how to treat an old film right. The transfer is sharp and almost flawless, rendering the black and white cinematography crystal clear. The audio is presented in the original mono only, but sounds quite good for all that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As good as Gardner's performance is, there is something about it that rings just a bit false to me and makes her character a bit off-putting. The character's bravado seems a little forced and a little too explosive at times, thus ringing just a bit false. It is a minor point in a very challenging role, but it does diminish the realism of the character somewhat.
The Night of the Iguana, like other Tennessee Williams creations, is no light entertainment. It is a serious, sobering look at human frailty. It will be an uncomfortable experience for some viewers. However, it is all the more rewarding for its challenges.
Not guilty! This lizard is free to roam the jungles of Mexico once more.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Night of the Iguana: Huston's Gamble" Featurette
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