They say Tennessee Williams was none too pleased with John Huston’s adaptation of his play The Night of the Iguana. They say he felt the director softened his characters, especially the female ones, too much. This is surprising as Huston isn’t exactly known for his softness, and there is plenty of caustic wit to be found in the film. They also say that when actresses Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon asked for the set to be “dry,” Huston had two large bars erected on the sides of the set. Which is to say Huston was never a sentimentalist.
I’ve never read the play nor seen it so I don’t know how the film compares but I think I can see the playwright’s point. While nearly every character in the story is troubled in one way or another, and most of them are hard or stubborn or crazy, there is a touch of sentimentality in the movie. I don’t mind it myself, but I can see why Mr. Williams might have said that. If he said it at all. That’s all just something I read somewhere.
The film begins in church. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), an Episcopal minister is having a bit of a nervous breakdown whilst giving his sermon. The congregants sit and stare with stern faces. Shannon sweats and mumbles, then we shout and swears. They have no right to judge him he says. The congregants walk out one by one. We’ll find out later what happened.
But first, we flash forward. Shannon is now defrocked or at least locked out of his church. He’s a tour guide for a low-rent bus company taking a group of doddering old Baptist ladies around Mexico. Well, they aren’t all so old and doddering, there is Charlotte, a young, sultry Lolita type (played by Sue Lyon who played Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of that novel just one year prior). She keeps trying to seduce Shannon, but he resists. Well, he sort of resists. He at least tells her to go away, but he’s never all that insistent on it. Especially one night when she comes into his room in her nighty. They embrace and are caught and that sours the whole tour. Especially after it is learned he’s had a prior dalliance with a young girl (that was the trouble back at the church).
Judith (Grayson Hall), possibly the oldest and certainly the most doddering woman in the group, is also Charlotte’s chaperone. She completely flips at the inappropriateness of the indiscretion and sends a telegram to the tour company president, a reply to be sent to her at their hotel in Puerto Vallarta. Shannon, sensing his impending doom, takes control of the bus and instead takes them to a resort hotel outside the city run by his friend. He’s hoping the beauty of the location and his own charms can persuade the ladies not to have him fired. Also, he doesn’t think the hotel has a phone line and thus the tour company should not be able to get a hold of anyone. The resort is run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), a bawdy, flamboyant woman who stands in stark contrast with the church ladies.
As everyone is settling in, two people come climbing up the walkway. Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a chaste but philosophical woman, and her poet grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti). They have no money but say they will pay for their stay in poems and portraits. They rely on the kindness of strangers.
With everyone now there, Shannon’s long day’s journey into the dark night of his soul can begin. Desperate to not lose his job, which he feels is the only thing holding him onto life, Shannon will do anything to stop this series of events that he started from finishing. These three women, Judith, Maxine, and Hannah, will push him towards and hold him back from the brink over the course of this one evening.
Judith wants to destroy him for what she thinks he did to Charlotte. Maxine is in love with him, and Hannah wants to save him. Shannon doesn’t seem to know whether he wants to be saved, destroyed, or loved.
All of the actors are fantastic in their roles. Richard Burton plays Shannon like a man completely lost. Maxine on the surface is a good-time happy girl. She readily admits she sleeps with the two cabana boys she’s hired and even did so when her late husband was still alive. She speaks her mind, too, calling Judith a closeted lesbian (though in terms the poor girl doesn’t quite understand). When she does so, it is Shannon who pulls her back, protecting Judith even though she is set on destroying him. Gardner gives the character a woundedness. Beyond her brash charm is a woman hurting.
Hannah has been damaged too, she had her own dark night but came out of it a better person. This is why she stays. Why she can help Shannon through this night to face another day. Together, these three damaged people create a shelter against the night. The film creates a beautiful piece of art to enjoy.
The standard Tennessee Williams themes of hidden desire and self-loathing are on full display in this film, but there is a feeling of sentimentality one doesn’t usually associate with him. You don’t usually associate it with John Huston either, but here it is. These characters are not fully lost; the film ends with a sense of hope. There is a feeling that Shannon might be saved after all. I, for one, am here for that feeling. I loved this movie.
Warner Archive presents The Night of the Iguana with a new 4K scan of the original negative. This is the first time the film has come to Blu-ray and it looks great. Extras include a couple of short featurettes, the best of which is a vintage promotional piece that includes some great behind-the-scenes footage, and some trailers.