Directed by John Huston; Written by John Huston and Anthony Veiller
Self-delusion rests like uneasy foam on the rolling waves in The Night of the Iguana, John Huston’s pressure cooker of a film that features an all-star cast lead by Richard Burton and a barbed script based on a Tennessee Williams play, all coming together in an all-out confrontation where piety, vice, guilt and acceptance mingle in the heat and some of God’s children go through one of those long nights of the soul.
Burton is Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a disgraced priest who’s stuck doing religious tours for middle-aged ladies in Mexico after getting ousted from his parish, partly due to a salacious encounter with a Sunday school teacher, partly due to the subsequent meltdown in the pulpit in face of the chorus of hushed whispers.
Now, alcoholized and flop sweating, he guides these Karens of yesteryear down the coast, clinging to the hope he can return to his former vocation one day, but finding it hard to renounce his vices, be it drink or the temptation posed by nymphette Charlotte (Sue Lyon), whose schoolgirl heart has fallen hard for the older man, because he’s, well, older.
It proves disastrous, as it puts him in the crosshairs of Judith Fellows, played with fervor by Grayson Hall, who sets to undoing him once and for all. Cornered, he runs into the arms of old acquaintance Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner) at her beachside inn, and so begins 24 hours with his existence on the line.
The Night of the Iguana is for anyone whose idea of a good time is watching others go through the wringer and see what happens when cutting dialogue is put in the hands of talented actors who use it to either swipe at their foes or slowly strip their beings bare. Watching it, you’re reminded of the slow death films like these have suffered in the past two decades, partly because of how hard they are to finance, and partly due to a filmmaking zeitgeist that favors understatement. Let me be clear: in The Night of the Iguana, people like to use their words, their voices and every facial muscle and to whisper is to waste.
Thank goodness for that. Burton revels in Lawrence’s thin pomposity and underlying madness, enunciating with a fever as if his words could beat back the accusations against his character coming from both without and within. Opposite him, Hall as Ms. Fellows tears into him with less controlled agitation, an anger that hones into cold derision as Lawrence runs out of rope.
It’s a pleasure to watch Lawrence disintegrate, but even in its vitriol, The Night of the Iguana is a film about redemption and how it cannot be found solely within. While the rumour mill can undo you, the kind word of a stranger can restore, and once you learn to live in your own heart, you’ll never be without a home again.
Because opposite the god-fearing flock of women stand those deemed unfit for nice society. Gardner’s Maxine is a smoldering hotel mistress plagued by nasty rumours of her own, and formidable Gardner is a perfect choice for a woman who’s seen it all and will never apologize, and while she has a broad back, when she breaks, she breaks hard.
It isn’t until the always incredible Deborah Kerr arrives on the scene as Hannah Jelkes, a travelling painter and sketch artist mocked throughout for her rolling stone ways, that The Night of the Iguana begins to dovetail, and through her, director Huston proves the value of grace.
Where The Night of the Iguana can be a pained slog through hell, its final chapter will have you believe that there is hope for even the most lost of us, the most denigrated of us, and how easy it can be to find, if you let yourself look for it.