At the End of their Ropes – Rediscovering ‘The Night of the Iguana’ (US 1964 – 118 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - September 10, 2014
At the End of their Ropes – Rediscovering ‘The Night of the Iguana’ (US 1964 – 118 mins)

Although it’s not one of John Huston’s most famous films, the sweaty psychological drama ‘The Night of the Iguana’, is an extremely entertaining movie with several top stars at their very best. Based on the 1961 play by Tennessee Williams, it’s a gripping tale of sex, religion, repression and loneliness. Something for everyone!

Two years after having a nervous breakdown during service, Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), is now an alcoholic tour guide for a run-down American company. His latest tour sees him accompanying a group of Baptist school teachers on a trip to Puerto Vallarta, in Mexico. The group’s butch leader; Miss Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall) accuses Shannon of trying to seduce her 17 year old niece Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon), who is travelling with them. Fearing trouble, Shannon (looking to buy some time), detours the tour bus to a coastal hotel run by lonely Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), the widow of his old friend. Also at the hotel are would-be artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), and her poet grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti). During a long night of heated arguments and home truths, this disparate group of lost souls come together and, by morning in some small way, their confused and despairing lives may just be changed with the hope of new beginnings for each of them.

‘The Night of the Iguana’ is wonderfully acted across the board by the starry cast. In a role turned down by James Garner, Richard Burton shines as the defrocked alcoholic priest, while the always excellent Deborah Kerr is terrific as a repressed spinster seeking free bed and board. Ava Gardner has perhaps her last great role, as the earthy, toy-boy loving widow. Two years after her debut in ‘Lolita’ (’62); Sue Lyon has her best adult role as another nymphet tempting Burton’s broken priest. Future ‘Dark Shadows’ actress Grayson Hall won the most plaudits as Lyon’s fragile aunt, and was Oscar-nominated for her sterling work.

This is my favourite of legendary screenwriter and director John Huston’s Sixties output, and was a far cry from his previous film, the entertaining mystery ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’ (’63). The superb script (which is not without humour) was by Huston and long-time collaborator Anthony Veiller, whose final film this was. The outstanding photography was by the prolific Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who went on to shoot the Clint Eastwood films ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ and ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ (both ’70).

A film with many memorable scenes, a rather touching one has Hannah’s poet grandfather (beautifully played by Cyril Delevanti); delivering the final version of a poem he has been working a long time on. After delivering the final words he quietly passes away in a rare serene moment in this tension filled movie.

A film I can happily re-watch, ‘The Night of the Iguana’ gave Richard Burton one of his most memorable characters, and in doing so, he delivered a great performance, my personal favourite of his. The movie may not be a masterpiece, but if you are a fan of any one of its main stars, then you should not be disappointed in this top-drawer human drama. I just wish it had been shot in colour to show off the stunning Mexican locations.

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