Friday, July 29, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Night of the Iguna (1964)

The Night of the Iguana (1964) *** ½
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Anthony Veiller and John Huston based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
Starring: Richard Burton (Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon), Ava Gardner (Maxine Faulk), Deborah Kerr (Hannah Jelkes), Sue Lyon (Charlotte Goodall), Skip Ward (Hank Prosner), Grayson Hall (Judith Fellowes), Cyril Delevanti (Nonno), Mary Boylan (Miss Peebles).

The characters in a Tennessee Williams play are always damaged. Even when it appears that there is a healthy character in his play, by the end whatever their weakness is has been exposed for the audience to see. His characters struggle, often in vain, to try and have some sort of human connection, but are left just as damaged at the end as they were at the beginning – in some cases more so. This could describe many of the films of director John Huston as well, who liked his characters broken or wounded. And it’s why the pair of them make a good team – and why The Night of the Iguana is such a fine movie.

The movie stars Richard Burton as Reverend Dr. Lawrence Shannon, who ran into some trouble in his Virginia congregation because of his relationship with a young pupil. He wasn’t defrocked or charged with a crime, but he may as well have been, as life there became impossible. He has moved to Mexico, and now gives religious tours on a low end for a low end tour group – and things here haven’t gotten any simpler. His most recent group is a women’s group from a church in Texas – and he seems to be in trouble again. The youngest woman on the tour is Charlotte (Lolita herself, Sue Lyon), who is underage and sent on this trip by her father to get away from a boy she was infatuated with. Now, she is infatuated with Shannon. He tries his best to resist her charms, although his lust for her makes it difficult. The chaperone on the trip is Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), a dour, stick in the mud, who doesn’t like what she sees going on – and makes it clear that she is going to report Shannon on their return. To avoid this, Shannon deliberately makes their bus breakdown just outside a small hotel, run by his old friend Maxine (Ava Gardner). Thinking that a few days in her beautiful hotel may quell Miss Fellowes mood, he gets them to stay there, but of course, Miss Fellowes will not go quietly.

It goes without saying that all of these characters – plus two others, the “oldest working poet in the world” Nonno (Cyril Delevanti) and his niece, a caricature artist Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who happen upon the hotel themselves, are all damaged, all reaching for human connection, and that love and lust has been confused in their minds. If they can’t have one, they’ll settle for the other for the time being – it sure beats the hell out of being alone.

Huston gets the most out of his actors here. Burton, a explosive personality and one of the great actors of his generation (whose work was at some points marred by his excessive drinking) delivers one of his best performances here. Shannon is a man well past his breaking point, who is simply trying to hold onto the last shred of dignity he has left – and that Charlotte is trying to take away from him. Lyon is wonderful as the precocious teenager, all raging hormones and lust, who falls in love in a heartbeat, and right back out of it just as quickly. Ava Gardner’s earthy beauty and lust has never been on such display as it is here. She was always uncomfortable with herself, and that shows in much of her work, but here, channeling those insecurities, she may just deliver the best work of her career. Deborah Kerr has a rather thankless role, but it gets deeper as it goes along – climaxing in her sad speech about her two “love affairs”, if you can call them that. She may just be the healthiest one of the lot, because at least she recognizes her deficiencies, and is dealing with them. The only cast member who has nominated for an Oscar back in 1964 when the film was released (and a case could be made that they all deserved to be) was Grayson Hall, who at first appears to simply being a shrewish, party pooper but even she gets a genuinely great moment late in the film – when something she has suppressed all her life is thrown in her face.

Huston loved to shot on location – something many filmmakers didn’t bother to do in the studio era. His exploits on The African Queen (1951) set are legendary, and even inspired a wonderful movie in its own right (Clint Eastwood’s underrated White Hunter, Black Heart). Here, he was taking a risk bringing these people to a remote era of Mexico. Burton had an explosive personality to begin with, and he brought along his girlfriend Elizabeth Taylor on the shoot – even though she was still married to Eddie Fisher at the time. Ava Gardener could be explosive herself, and the rest of the cast was experienced enough to perhaps be off put by the rustic, not at all glamorous surroundings. Yet, Huston was able to pull them altogether, and he ends up with a wonderful movie. The movie is a howl of pain from these characters, reaching out, trying to connect, and being rebuffed. The movie has a somewhat hopeful ending – everyone seems to be where they belong. I just doubt that any of them are going to wind up happy for very long.

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