John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana gives us the glorious words of Tennessee Williams performed by an accomplished cast including Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr at or near the zeniths of their careers.
The Production: 4/5
The last of Tennessee Williams’ successful Broadway plays was brought to the screen in 1964 by one of the cinema’s great directors, John Huston – The Night of the Iguana. As with so many of the playwright’s best-known works, it deals with tormented souls looking for acceptance, kindness, even love if they’re lucky, and as with most plays made into films, there’s a surfeit of talk and not much action, but it’s interesting talk, and the character revelations and emotionally naked personalities wrestling with their ultimate fates make for sometimes spellbinding drama. The Night of the Iguana is also blessed with a star-laden cast speaking some of Tennessee Williams’ most angst-filled but also most poetic dialogue.
Disgraced minister Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) finds himself as a disenchanted guide on a second-rate bus tour of Mexico with an impossible-to-please group of Texas ladies who are making a difficult trip next to unbearable. He’s being hotly pursued by teenaged Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon) who’s anxious to escape the overbearing control of her chaperone Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), and as his resistance crumbles with one-too-many nightly visits to his room, Miss Fellowes intends to see to it that he’s fired from his job. To prevent her reporting him, Shannon hijacks their tour bus and drives to the Mexican coast to a hillside bungalow hotel run by old friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). They’re soon joined by a penniless itinerant artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her 97-year old poet grandfather Noono (Cyril Delevanti) who are also trying to decide what’s next in their lives.
Director John Huston has fashioned the screenplay with co-writer Anthony Veiller, retaining most of the set-up for the drama from Tennessee Williams’ play but adding several scenes of their own and altering the ending of the piece. The location filming aids tremendously in setting the tone of the movie: an almost idyllic setting against which a number of characters must go through some excruciating examinations of their lives to decide whether they wish to continue living in their own particular brands of moral pain, end it all, or make changes that will set them off on new paths. The symbolism isn’t especially subtle when we watch Maxine’s two beach boys chase an iguana through the jungle for their eventual supper, the captured reptile trussed to the porch, a situation Reverend Shannon finds himself in later after he’s chased through the vegetation and then saved from a reckless suicide and tied to a hammock to rethink his life’s purpose so better to figure out what he has left to offer humanity (his own speech, beautifully delivered by Richard Burton, about “man’s inhumanity to God” is ironically ignored by him in his crazed fit of self-harming temperament.
Richard Burton’s mellifluous voice was made for delivering Tennessee Williams’ poetic words, and this is one of his best performances. Though he was Oscar-nominated for the same year’s epic Becket, he could just as easily have been nominated for this, and it’s a more vulnerable and touching portrayal that might have given him a better chance of winning the award. Of the Reverend Shannon’s three love interests, Sue Lyon is the least accomplished, but she’s acting in really heady company with such pros and naturally comes off somewhat brittle and awkward. Deborah Kerr (in the role that won her stage counterpart Margaret Leighton a Tony Award) is more forthright and less emotionally needy than this role is often played bringing common sense and a platonic sense of caring to the part of spinster Hannah Jelkes. Though she’s not the central focus of the drama, Ava Gardner as the recently widowed and earthy hotel owner steals every scene she’s in, clearly the outstanding performance of the movie as a woman smacked hard with the realization that she’s desperately needing not only human companionship but someone she can give herself to and receive equal compassion in return. In smaller parts, Grayson Hall (who earned an Oscar nomination) is the steely, holier-than-thou Judith Fellowes, Cyril Delevanti is a frail but earnest Nonno, and Skip Ward (billed here as James Ward) is Shannon’s assistant ready to take over both the tour and Charlotte Goodall’s affections.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Grayscale is beautifully film-like with blacks and whites that do justice to the gorgeous cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. Sharpness is excellent throughout, and there are no age-related dirt, splices, or debris to mar the viewing experience. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is very reminiscent of aural presentations of the era. All of the dialogue has been masterfully recorded and has been mixed with surety with Benjamin Frankel’s music score and the various sound effects for a solid audio track. There are no issues with hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops.
Special Features: 2.5/5
The Night of the Iguana: Huston’s Gamble (9:54, HD): film historians Donald Spoto, Lawrence Grobel, and Eric Lax discuss the making of the film with the strong mix of personalities before and behind the camera.
On the Trail of the Iguana (13:40, HD): an MGM-produced publicity featurette shot with some John Huston voiceover showing some of the locations for the film in color.
Movie Trailers (HD): teaser trailer (1:08) and theatrical trailer (3:22).
John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana gives us the glorious words of Tennessee Williams performed by an accomplished cast including Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr at or near the zeniths of their careers. The Warner Archive Blu-ray release features pristine video and audio making the drama come alive especially for fans of the stars, the director, or the playwright. Recommended!
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