Leave it to director, John Huston to hatch a bit of mayhem to launch the shoot of The Night of the Iguana (1964); his exquisitely tawdry big screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ scathing exploration, devoted to original sin and the three women from varied backgrounds who will draw one man closer to his truest self and destiny. The play, a sizable smash on Broadway, running 316 performances, added to William’s already formidable reputation by casting screen legend, Bette Davis as the uninhibited Maxine Faulk. Davis had hoped – against hope – to be considered to reprise the role for the film; a part sought by virtually every other actress in Hollywood. But Huston had his own notions about casting – intuitive and, as it turned out, right on the money. In hindsight, Huston was picking not only from the very best Hollywood had to offer, but according to type. Determined to create a potent ice-breaker to divert attention away from the recent Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton contratante in Rome that had crippled two marriages (Taylor’s to Eddie Fisher and Burton’s to his long-suffering Sybil), and all but laid waste to the reputation of Joseph L. Mankewicz’s costly epic, Cleopatra (1963); also, to unruffle the press, still swirling about Taylor’s behind-the-scenes presence as though it alone might generate another mega-kilowatt public scandal, Huston had gold-plated Derringer revolvers made and bullets engraved with each cast member’s name. These were handed out at the cast party to kick off the location shoot in Puerto Vallarta; then, a sleepy and remote little hamlet, ideally suited to Huston’s need to be secretive.
Evidently, the cast got a kick out of Huston’s gesture; the guns mercifully never used; the mood immediately turning jovial and remaining in high spirits throughout; essentially, anything but fraught with the sort of insidious and grating friction evoked by the characters in the play. There were a few moments to illustrate otherwise; Burton, apparently unaware a bodyguard had been hired to keep the press at bay, having a minor tantrum aboard the tiny plane carrying them to this remote retreat after discovering a burly Mexican seated across from him, carrying a gun. But Elizabeth Taylor’s presence was mostly welcomed by cast and crew, despite being initially frowned upon by Burton, who knew all too well from their prior working relationship in Rome what a ‘distraction’ she could be. Still, the filming of The Night of the Iguana ignited considerable controversy; the local newspaper, Siempre, declaring “Our children are being introduced to sex, booze, drugs, vice, and carnal bestiality by the garbage from the United States: gangsters, nymphomaniacs, heroin-taking blondes.” A nearby Catholic convent weighed in, protesting Taylor's presence, as neither she nor Burton were yet divorced from their respective spouses and thus, by all religious conventions, ‘living in sin’ while threatening to contaminate the social mores of the locals by their behavior.
Point blank: The Night of the Iguana is a masterpiece; made at a time when the barriers in screen censorship were steadily being tested and eroded by more ambitious filmmakers, eager to show audiences the uglier side of humanity. Indeed, the timing could not have been better for Tennessee Williams, whose Southern Gothic stagecraft frequently reveled in the delusional and self-destructive nature of humanity at large and the desecration of carefully plotted public reputations. Williams actually based his 1961 dramatization on a short story written in 1948, along the way fleshing out two tertiary characters – Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather – and creating an entire subplot to carry his third act. But the real inspiration for the short story had come from a fortuitous vacation Williams had taken in 1940 to Acapulco. Perhaps it was the heat – frequently blamed by Williams for the inertia guests showed toward virtually all world events taking place outside their sweaty little enclave, but Williams became utterly fascinated by their ennui; even more compelled to write about this peripatetic toxicity, already begun to poison the blood of an entire generation. Aside: I often wonder, if he had lived, what Tennessee Williams would have made of our present-day, navel-gazing cohort.
John Huston had admired the play, The Night of the Iguana, approaching Seven Arts as an independent to fund a movie version for him to direct and quite unaware producer, Ray Stark was already firmly committed to hiring Huston to do just that. As Huston’s plans to shoot on location too shape in rather dense and remote jungle vegetation, necessitating virtually all of Maxine’s mountaintop retreat be built from scratch and to spec, Huston’s ace in the hole in getting the project green lit, and then, achieving unprecedented and tamper-free autonomy, was MGM’s own sad implosion. Repeatedly rocked by corporate drama in the boardroom, Metro’s ‘close-knit’ control over independents like Huston had taken a backseat to ever-increasing clashes between executives vying for power to steady an already badly foundering ship. Metro’s track record throughout the 1960’s was spotty at best. Unhinged by the loss of founding father, L.B. Mayer, and furthermore reeling from the government’s decision to splinter their kingdom, MGM proved too vast and unwieldy an empire to command from the position of mere bean-counting. Worse – they seemed incapable of making a truly ‘big picture’ without forcing some of the most respected names in the industry to fall into line and abide by their rules. Some, like directors, Stanley Kubrick and David Lean resisted such interference; the undiluted purity of their resultant masterworks made under Metro’s banner (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968 and Doctor Zhivago, 1965 respectively) reflecting their personal commitments, even under the yoke and duress of potentially damaging internal influences.
To some extent Huston took full advantage of Metro’s lapse in keeping close tabs; rigorously rehearsing his actors and technicians behind the camera to capture his vision on celluloid while still remaining within the studio’s allotted time frame and budget. In viewing The Night of the Iguana today, one is immediately awestruck by Huston’s incredible telescopic focus and discipline. He seems particularly engaged herein; the drama, both swift and assured, moving at a breakneck pace with plenty of raw and uninhibited emotion to boot, yet miraculously, never rushed, clumsy or wanting for riveting high-stakes tension. Better still, Huston handpicked his cast from a superb assortment of heavy hitters; some, decidedly going – or even, slightly gone – to seed; others on the upswing and extremely eager to chomp at the bit to do their best work for him. “It was a mystery then, you see,” Huston would later comment while reminiscing about Puerto Vallarta and Banderas Bay, “Just someplace barely on the map and not looking to be discovered by anyone anytime soon. When we came we had to build everything from scratch. I set up camp like a general going into battle. But none of what we needed was there. Dirt roads: every time it rained you didn’t dare drive a truckload of equipment up there or get stuck in the mud trying. Damn hot too. But unspoiled – innocent. That’s what I liked most. You could get lost up there. People need places to get lost sometimes. The boys from the press came along and with their flashbulbs turned it into a goddamn Disneyland. Makes me sad and wanting for the way it was before we came.”
John Huston could take some comfort in that his arrival meant a boost to the local economy; the subsequent ‘fall out’ from transforming such a remote location into a world-class destination, generating a boom that continues to keep the area prosperous with tourist trade. Huston had been in love with Mexico ever since 1929, when he navigated his private yacht up the Pacific Coast. In the interim, virtually nothing about Mexico had changed; Huston’s love affair with the place and its indigenous peoples only growing riper with the passage of time. Indeed, one of Huston’s stipulations in making the film was Mismaloya; a tropical oasis with nooks and crannies virtually untouched by human hands. For some time, Huston had tired of the North American lifestyle; the artifice to making movies too. “You can’t create paradise lost on a sound stage,” he mused, “Much less on a back lot. There’s no uncertainty to it. No danger. No spark of life, which is what Tennessee’s plays are always about. You can’t fake that. You have to feel your way through it, stumbling, going with your gut reaction to being there – and location helps actors do this better than any manufactured prop or painted sky.”
From the onset, Puerto Vallarta appealed to Huston – also, to Elizabeth Taylor – precisely because of its uncharted rugged exoticism and remoteness. Half-way around the world, Huston’s carousal into experimentation, not having to worry about an impromptu visit from the money men, generated a genuine sense of living in the moment that remains highly palpable in the finished film. As for Taylor; few in town – apart from the press – knew, or cared, who she was. This suited Taylor just fine. But it was really Huston who remained in his ‘element’ throughout this shoot. Tennessee Williams had set his short story in Acapulco, circa 1940. And if Huston harbored the intensity of a creative genius already having fallen in love with Mexico, his friendship with producer, Ray Stark – who immediately considered Huston the eminence gris in all things Mexican – could also appreciate Huston’s alliance with Guillermo Wulff; an engineer from Mexico City, whose list of influential contacts in the government included even the country’s President, Adolfo López Mateos; thus affording Huston unprecedented access to virtually any areas and assets he so desired. Huston was well respected by the locals, having shot a good deal of his 1948 classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Durango and Tampico; one of the first location shoots to take full advantage of this starkly rugged countryside.
Either way, Huston would have given his right arm to direct The Night of the Iguana, simply to experience Mexico again. “It’s one of the countries I like best in the world,” he confided, “Besides, location is just like an actor. It gives something to a picture, you know, envelops it in an atmosphere.” Huston held both Stark and Williams in very high regard; particularly Tennessee, whom he considered the foremost living playwright of his generation. In adapting Williams for the screen, Huston, together with screenwriter, Anthony Vellier, was careful not to tamper (much) with Williams’ explosive and sexually-charged dialogue; only the overall construction of the piece, and even then, simply for the purposes of ‘opening up’ the stage-bound material to accommodate the infinitely more vast expanses of the movie screen. Meanwhile, Wulff set about convincing Huston Mismaloya, a beach south of Puerto Vallarta, would be ideal to make the picture; ‘ideal’, being a relative term. For although Mismaloya satisfied virtually all of Huston’s criteria in terms of capturing the isolation and slightly careworn seediness integral to the plot, it was also a virtually untapped oasis with zero luxuries to offer a visiting film crew; not even electricity or indoor plumbing!
In retrospect, the creative symbiosis between Tennessee Williams and John Huston seems preordained. Both men were ardent, though clear-eyed cynics scarred by life; able to clear-cut past human foibles that often seem too great, or perhaps, merely too obvious to be challenged and exposed for what they are in articulate and meaningful ways. Succinctly, both Williams and Huston shared an affinity for the morally downtrodden having so spectacularly fallen from grace; usually men, nearly consumed by self-pity and stifling guilt; dreamers, actually, raked over the coals by a reality threatening on all sides, purposely meant as the plague to scour their palettes once and for all, even as they teeter on the brink of self-destruction with seemingly no means of escape. Such is the case for the recently defrocked Episcopal cleric, Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (played with a miraculous semi-tragic self-reproach by Richard Burton); driven half-mad by an indiscretion with a female parishioner, but more recently made to feel unclean about his antiseptic friendship with a precocious – if slightly spoiled – rich girl (Sue Lyons, fresh from playing the debaucherously delicious Lolita for Stanley Kubrick in 1962; her variation herein, as the ironically named, Charlotte Goodall, creating general havoc for both Shannon and Charlotte’s stern chaperone; the closeted lesbian, Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall).
Huston could, perhaps, recognize a bit of himself in Shannon; moreover, in Burton’s emotionally raped portrait of this fictional counterpart; God’s lonely, tortured soul, yearning for purity and simplicity in his life, yet ever doomed to fall back on his more puerile and primal-driven urges to seduce, and willingly allow himself to be seduced by a pretty face. The irony is, of course, Shannon is no more physically attracted to Charlotte, whom he rightly views as a child, than he is tempted to betray her malicious custodian, increasingly hell-bent on destroying his reputation with his most recent employer, ‘Blake’s Tours’. Periodically, the eccentric Huston had known such malice and isolation in his own life; frailty as a child due to physical ailments. He stubbornly dared – and mostly succeeded – in his triumph over adversity, marrying too young and growing bored with his early life decisions and career; running through booze and broads and, at a particularly low point, becoming a penniless beggar with little interest in laying down more permanent roots. Huston’s enigmatic personality and creative genius won him many friends amongst Hollywood’s hoi poloi – eager to go slumming, on occasion; but his reputation as a macho bad boy earned him just as many detractors in the executive hierarchy for whom he frequently thumbed his nose.
We meet the Reverend Shannon after MGM’s iconic Leo roars; a prologue in which Shannon attempts to administer the gospel to his flock, already diligently aware of his affair with a very young Virginian Sunday school teacher and mere come to gawk and silently admonish him with their accusatory stares. Unable to continue, Shannon suffers a horrendous breakdown, ostracizing his congregation and forcing them out of the chapel into the pouring rain. We dissolve to a moody main title; various close-ups of the famed lizard of the title, set against Benjamin Frankel’s unsettling score. Two years have passed during this brief interim; Shannon, now a frustrated guide for Blake’s Tours, escorting a group of middle-aged Baptist school teachers by bus around the various sites to be seen in Puerto Vallarta. Like Hitchcock, both Tennessee Williams and Huston treat these matronly denizens with broadsided mockery; presented as mindless, sexless and frumpy gargoyles, fronted by the exceptionally brittle Judith, whose seventeen year old niece, the sultry Charlotte, is the antithesis and an affront to all their suppressed sexuality. Shannon is cordial toward Charlotte; perhaps, even unknowing at the start that his kindnesses are considered a bit of a tease. But Charlotte has become smitten with Shannon, whom she refers to with unsettling familiarity as ‘Larry’. Thus, when Shannon attempts to escape the women in his tour group and disappear for an impromptu swim while bus driver, Hank Prosner (Skip Ward) changes a flat on the side of the road, Charlotte pursues Shannon into the ocean. Believing Shannon is up to no good, Judith finds plenty to fault; threatening to expose his prior peccadilloes to the rest of the travel group unless he refrains from interacting with her ward for the duration of their trip. However, when Charlotte sneaks off in the middle of the night and is later discovered in Shannon’s hotel room, the resultant scandal is enough for Judith to make good on her threats to have Shannon fired from his job.
Desperate to salvage even this pathetic career Shannon shanghaies the bus, driving it past the prearranged next stop on their itinerary to prevent Judith from telephoning his employer. Instead, he suggests a refreshing change of pace at the remote Costa Verde hotel in Mismaloya, overseen by his old pal, Fred and his wife, the uninhibited and bawdy Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner in, arguably, the best role of her career). Removing the distributor cap to prevent Hank from driving the ladies back into town, Shannon encourages his hostages to take refuge inside the Costa Verde. Although initially pleased to see Shannon, Maxine is decidedly unwelcoming toward this congregation of women at first. After all, the hotel is closed for the season. Her cook, Chang (C.G. Kim) is a marijuana addict, too perpetually stoned to cook for the guests. Shannon quickly discovers Fred, considerably older than Maxine, has recently died of a heart attack, perhaps knowing all along of his wife’s various paramours, including Shannon.
To his everlasting regret, Shannon is also informed by Maxine the Costa Verde now has telephone access. Judith wastes no time putting in a call to Blake’s Tours and, after a thwarted first attempt to get through, she is successful at exposing Shannon’s perceived infidelities with Charlotte to his employer. Maxine is not fooled by Judith’s ravenous desire to so completely enervate Shannon’s already dangerously low ebb of self-preservation as a man. But Shannon has already figured out Judith’s truer nature; her venom towards him both a shield and a mask to cloak her closeted homosexuality. Preserving his last ounce of dignity, Shannon suggests, “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” Despite his genuine disinterest in Charlotte, later to rupture her school girl’s crush in a hateful tirade and other self-destructive ways, Shannon is promptly relieved of his command of the tour. While Shannon sorts through this latest disgrace, still struggling to keep the aggressive Charlotte at arm’s length and reconcile his truer feelings towards Maxine; Hank, in a misguided notion of chivalry, engages in a fist fight with Maxine’s cabana boys; Pepe (Fidelmar Durán) and Pedro (Roberto Leyva), whom Charlotte has endeavored to seduce on the beach, and for whom Maxine has readily exploited to satisfy her own frustrations even while Fred was still alive.
In the meantime, the hotel is visited by Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a wayfaring con artist from Nantucket, peddling her amateur skills as a sketch artist in trade for room and board, along with her decrepit grandfather, Nonno (Cyril Delevanti); whose claim to fame is recitations of his poems. Reportedly, Nonno is working on his greatest composition yet. Alas, the old man is very close to death. Indeed, he will not outlive the next few days as Hannah shores up and reconciles her sobering naiveté to reflect upon the crumbling central relationship between Shannon and Maxine. Over the course of one stormy night, Shannon suffers another breakdown, forcibly bound in a hammock by Pepe and Pedro on Maxine’s say-so after he threatens suicide; compelled to face his demons – both flesh and the bottle. Nonno dies after completing his poem, an astute observation on man’s folly as he is driven to confront the specter of death. If The Night of the Iguana does have a moment of sobering epiphany, it is Nonno’s dying recitation, eloquently evolved by Delevanti’s superb oration, his voice threateningly frail and parched, quivering yet punctuating the appropriate syllables. “How calmly does the orange branch observe without a cry, without a prayer, with no betrayal of despair. Sometime while night obscures the tree, the Zenith of its life will be gone past forever, and from thence, a second history will commence. A chronicle no longer old. A bargaining with mist and mold. And finally the broken stem plummeting to earth; and then, an intercourse not well designed, for beings of a golden kind, whose native green must arch above the earth's obscene, corrupting love. And still the ripe fruit and the branch observe the sky begin to blanch, without a cry, without a prayer, with no betrayal of despair. Oh courage could you not as well select a second place to dwell? Not only in that golden tree, but in the frightened heart of me?”
Hannah administers a home remedy of poppy-seed tea to tranquilize Shannon’s anxiety. But only after the storm clouds have broken, both literally and figuratively, is Shannon truly liberated from this temporary psychosis and dominating despair. Suspecting Shannon may have designs on Hannah, Maxine threatens a moonlit frolic with Pepe and Pedro in the roaring surf. But her mind is distracted by her own desires to be with Shannon. By dawn’s early light the previous night’s indiscretions appear far less frightening to all. Shannon realizes his place is with Maxine. After some initial friction, the two jointly electing to run the Costa Verde together and likely pick up where their previous affair left off some time ago. Maxine, who initially thought to ward Hannah off her property out of jealousy, now, instead, takes pity on her. But Hannah has rather wisely decided the time has come to move on. Without Nonno, she becomes the film’s singularly tragic figure; electing to merely drift along life’s road; a very inconsolable and unfamiliar path toward an even more unstable, and quite possibly, despairing future; the transference of her clear-eyed hope and promise into Shannon, perhaps having deprived her of any chance for the same.
The Night of the Iguana is not as readily considered a part of John Huston’s top-tiered entertainments. Perhaps, not – for it lacks something in Huston’s ability to keep the story moving along, despite shifting locales and Gabriel Figueroa’s luxuriating B&W cinematography. Infrequently, the platitudes espoused by Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr linger just a tad too long as remnants of the stagecraft, never lacking either in fire or music of their expertly crafted delivery, yet queerly better suited for the stage than a movie. Interestingly, Huston and producer, Ray Stark clashed on Huston’s decision to shoot the film in black and white; Stark hoping for a lush photographic travelogue to augment the drama, while Huston firmly believed color would detract from the human story. Years later, Huston conceded if he could do it all over again, he would have shot the movie in color to underscore the yearnings and temptations depicted in the story. Unquestionably, the various vignettes Huston has derived from Tennessee Williams’ compelling stagecraft are all brilliantly realized in the film; the acting from all concerned of the absolute highest order. Yet, the heart of the piece belongs to Ava Gardner’s whisky-voiced and unapologetically earthy Maxine; a performance likely cutting too close to the bone of Ava Gardner’s personality. “I wish to live to be a hundred and fifty,” Gardner (who died at the age of 68) once said, “…but the day I die I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.” Indeed, Gardner’s reputation as a Hollywood bad girl was legendary; bringing these well-traveled exploits to her characterization of this gutsy gal, teetering on the verge of an almost irredeemably volatile disposition.
Unwilling to allow Judith Fellowes her victories over Shannon, Gardner brings an unprecedentedly sobering conviction to her double entendre inquiry, “What subject do you teach back in that college of yours, honey?” When Judith curtly admits “Voice... if that's got anything to do with it”, Gardner’s Maxine follows up with the even more loaded, “Well geography is my specialty. Did you know that if it wasn't for the dikes the plains of Texas would be engulfed by the gulf?” Gardner, married and divorced three times already by the time she made The Night of the Iguana, wields an even more sobering conviction over her reading of the line, “Even I know the difference between lovin' somebody, and just goin' to bed with them. Even I know that”; her clear-eyed sadness married to an even more sustaining avuncular threshold for all wounded creatures. “The truth…”, Gardner would later commit to paper in her scalding memoir, “…is that the only time I'm happy is when I'm doing absolutely nothing. I don't understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty. Doing nothing feel like floating on warm water to me. Delightful, perfect.”
Indeed, Gardner shared something of Huston’s scorn for the power structure that had made them both famous. “Being a film star is still a big damn bore,” she repeatedly pointed out, “Apparently, I'm what’s known as a 'glamour girl.' Now that's a phrase which means luxury, leisure, excitement, and all things lush. No one associates a six A.M. alarm, a thirteen-hour workday, several more hours of study, housework, and business appointments with glamour. That, however, is what glamour means in Hollywood. But being a movie star in America is the loneliest life in the world. In Europe they respect your privacy. At least I'm one Hollywood star who hasn't tried to slash her wrists, take sleeping pills, or kick a cop in the shins. That's something of an accomplishment these days. But take my advice, honey. Hollywood is just a dreary, quiet suburb of Los Angeles, with droopy palm trees, washed-out buildings, cheap dime stores, and garish theaters; a far cry from the razzle-dazzle of New York, or even the rural beauty of North Carolina.”
One senses Gardner’s distaste for the superficialities of the system that made her legend, rechanneled into her characterization of Maxine Faulk; something about the way she gives the impression not to give a hoot about how she looks – a sort of glamour girl gone to seed, with disheveled hair, her baggy, wrinkled shirt perpetually untucked; generally lacking the anticipated poise of that romanticized statuesque celluloid beauty as she slithers, saunters and playfully trips about the landscape with an infectiously erotic liquidity; fairly smelling of sex as she playfully threatens to knock Judith Fellowes teeth out, or taking rich pleasure in Shannon’s debacle to rid himself of the overenthusiastic Charlotte. “It's very serious,” Shannon tries to explain, “The child is emotionally precocious.” “Well, bully for her!” Maxine declares.
The Night of the Iguana would go on to earn 4 Oscar-nominations, its singular statuette to Dorothy Jeakins for costume design. Respectable, if not mind-boggling, box office aside; the movie has steadily earned a reputation as a great movie, despite Tennessee Williams’ reflections made to Huston some six years later, “I still don’t like the finish, John.” Nevertheless, the making of the movie would leave an indelible impression on Huston who, after years of renting a home in Puerto Vallarta, became a respected member of the Chacala Indian community, south of Boca de Tomatlan; leasing the land for ten years, with an additional ten year option, after which time it was returned to the Chacalas. For a time, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would also reside in the vicinity, in a decidedly plush nine bedroom villa dubbed Gringo Gulch; contented to be left alone by the locals who respectfully afforded them some semblance of a ‘normal life’. Of all their various residences around the world, Taylor would often profess to Mexico where she felt the most at home. After their marriage ended, Burton would return to Mexico with his new wife, Susan Hunt, who maintained lasting friendships in Puerto Vallarta long after Burton’s death. To mark the 25th anniversary of the making of the movie, a bronze statue of Huston was erected on the River Cuale in 1989.
The Night of the Iguana could use a new transfer. I will be among the first to champion the Warner Archive to get a hold of new elements for a 1080p Blu-ray release. Overall, the current DVD is not terrible. And yet, it remains a far cry from what it ought to be or might have been with just a little more due diligence applied. The 1.75:1 aspect ratio image exhibits mostly solid contrast during daytime photography and a fairly accurate and balanced grayscale; although there remain a few shots looking slightly washed out and softly focused. Age-related artifacts, while not egregiously represented, do sporadically distract; dirt, nicks, chips and a few scratches. There is also some minor gate weave in a few scenes. Blacks suffer more so during sequences shot at night; looking velvety gray, instead of jet black. Fine detail overall is not wanting. Alas, we have considerable edge enhancement throughout, with film grain periodically looking more like digitized grit. No real complaints, but again, not perfect and indeed a shame for a movie boasting so many exquisite performances. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this primarily dialogue-driven movie. Warner Home Video has not given us much to go on via extras: a tired featurette ‘Huston’s Gamble’, made during filming to promote the movie gives us a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the director at work – and, in color – crafting his masterpiece. Bottom line: The Night of the Iguana is another meticulously crafted movie from John Huston; one yet to be given full credit for the formidable artistry exhibited throughout. Recommended – until a Blu-ray comes along!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)