The Night of the Iguana (John Huston, 1964)

“The Night of the Iguana” is a decent-to-very good adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play: sometimes riveting with sexual and carnal tension, sometimes meandering into dull insignificance.  From the outset, it’s obviously Richard Burton versus the world (the world being every kind of female persona imaginable, from youthful seductress to wicked closeted lesbian to chaste, penniless wanderer).  What’s interesting, though, is how Burton’s Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon ain’t exactly a choir boy himself.  As a shamed ex-priest turned second-rate tour guide (though he’ll insist he was only “locked out of his church”), Shannon initially tries to resist the temptations of the sultry and underage Charlotte, the drink, and strangling the bitch to end all bitches, Ms. Fellowes, but eventually even this ordained clergyman must give in to his deepest desires.  We see Shannon the priest suffer a nervous breakdown in the opening scene, and we see Shannon the tour guide suffer a nervous breakdown at the Mexican hotel of his friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) much later.  In between, we see Burton act out the slow mental decay of this man wonderfully – at one moment the picture of control with his British accent and wry demeanor, and later tied up, writhing and screaming like a banshee – and every degree of subtle madness in between.  As one of the few male presences in the film (though certainly not an automatic to garner our sympathy), Burton is the main selling point, and he gives a commanding performance.

It’s a shame, then, that the actors around Richard Burton are bad.  Incredibly bad.  It seems like Sue Lyon as the young temptress Charlotte had to be poked and prodded to get her lines out, Deborah Kerr is dull as Shannon’s possible redeeming angel Ms. Jelkes, and on and on.  The only possible exception is Ava Gardner as Maxine, who’s what you’d expect from a typical supporting character with some moxie, but at least gets your attention.  It doesn’t really help matters that the script and story just aren’t that…interesting.  There’s so much dialogue and random scenes of philosophical awakening within this one hotel setting, with almost no unifying factor to tie everything together (except for the old man’s final, wonderful poem).  I want to feel the sexual and carnal tension oozing out of these characters as they interact, not simply be told about it.  The metaphor of Shannon being like the tethered and trapped iguana is all good and well, but I want to figure that out for myself, not have it pointed out to me, ya know?  I suppose that’s more of a criticism of Tennessee Williams than of John Huston (which really shocks me, considering the near-unbearable sexual tension of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, which to this day is probably the best non-Shakespeare stage play I’ve ever read), though Huston certainly does his best to achieve that intangible feeling of a world of temptation closing in on Shannon. 

Much of the main section of the film has that uncomfortable feeling, particularly with the presence of Maxine’s hypersexual boy-toys, but what really drew me to “The Night of the Iguana” was Huston’s direction and that cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa that so impressed me in Huston’s later “Under the Volcano.”  Shots are long and free-flowing, and the camera gets right in on the characters, particularly when Shannon finds a wall of singing old ladies closing in on him on that bus, or when that amorous Charlotte slinks closer and closer to him in his bedroom.  Adapting a play for the screen is a tricky business, and there’s just something that gets lost in translation here when a top-of-his-game Richard Burton finds himself surrounded by some very safe, conventional performances.  Guess it figures, then, that the scenes that most easily drew me in, where John Huston’s directing prowess was at its finest and the carnality was at its rawest, was the part that wasn’t in Williams’ play (no offense whatsoever meant towards Tennessee Williams and his writing, but I guess a story like “The Night of the Iguana” is just meant more for the stage than the screen.  I dunno. 😕 )


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