More than fifty years after its release, The Night of the Iguana (1964), still has the power to move, amuse and shock us in its frank examination of how the human animal deals with sex, love and its belief in God. A journey into one man's hell and ultimately his resurrection, Iguana may not fully answer the questions it raises, but it is a film that takes us along a bumpy ride (literally and figuratively) that challenges us to refocus our ideas about our everyday existence.
Directed by John Huston and based on the famous 1961 Tennessee Williams play, Iguana tells the story of the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), an Episcopal minister who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, has taken a sabbatical from his religious duties and now leads tours in Mexico and the southwest United States. In the film's memorable opening scene, Shannon gives a sermon to his congregation that has packed the small church. After a few minutes, he understands they are in attendance not to listen to the word of God, but rather as a curiosity, as they have heard rumors that he had sexual affairs with a young woman. Shannon lashes out at them, and the crowd rushes out of the small worship room. We soon learn that Shannon was locked out of his church after this; we next see him, asleep in a square in a small town in Mexico, where he is overseeing a tour of mostly middle-aged women from a Baptist female college in America.
While the majority of the women are in their 40s or 50s, there is one 16 year-old named Charlotte (Sue Lyon, who had played the role of Lolita in the Stanley Kubrick film two years earlier) that has a crush on Shannon. Having been pushed out the door of his parish for his previous behavior, Shannon nominally wants no part of this young blond nymph, but he is tempted nonetheless. This is immediately noticed by Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), who is the den mother of the group; her attitude toward Shannon, a bit unsure from the start, becomes more untrusting as the journey continues.
Knowing that he is losing control, Shannon takes over the tour and drives the bus not to their appointed hotel in Puerto Vallarta, but instead to a oceanside resort run by an old friend Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). He is expecting to find her husband Fred, but is told by Maxine that he died; she now runs the resort, which is nominally closed as it is summer, the down time for travel in this part of Mexico.
Into this scenario comes a self-described New England spinster Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her elderly grandfather Nonno (Cyril Delevanti), whom we are told is "the world's oldest living poet." Nonno is at work on his latest poem and Hannah is a sketch artist; neither has a peso to their name, so they must appeal to Maxine's kindness for a room.
A publicity photo for The Night of the Iguana - Richard Burton with (l. to r.), Sue Lyon, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner
This mix of characters is a memorable clash of wills, from the feisty Maxine and the lustful Charlotte to the repressed, angry Miss Fellowes (Shannon at one point calls her a "butch vocal teacher") as well as the turned-down Hannah, who is more or less, the moral center of this tale. It is Shannon's uneasy relationship with each of these women that give the story its passion and occasional fireworks.
Huston, who adapted the script along with Anthony Veiller, keeps turning up the heat and venom, while directing appropriately (he was spectacularly aided by the stark, moody, black and white photography of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figeuroa). The helmsman elicited some wonderful performances here, especially in the scenes between Miss Fellowes and Shannon (Burton was rarely better, while Hall was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress). She hates his supposed moral looseness and never lets an opportunity to threaten him slip by; he does his best to deflect her criticism, assuring her that things will be fine. Also, he must thwart the advances of Charlotte as well as help Hannah and Nonno in their plight, while also enlisting the trust of Maxine.
A major focus in this story is how each of the main characters has difficulties in dealing with sexual behavior. A brief analysis reveals:
Shannon - A man of the cloth - "the grandson of two bishops" we are told - should be above earthly temptations, but he is weak of flesh, tempted especially by young women. "People need human contact," he tells Maxine at one point.
Miss Fellowes - Humorless and uptight, the screenplay makes no bones that she is a lesbian (this is 1964, remember, so this is done somewhat discreetly). Her disgust toward Shannon's behavior with Charlotte may have to do with the fact that she herself is attracted to - and desires - Charlotte.
Maxine - Her sexual frustrations arise from the fact that her late husband, more than 25 years older than she, rarely made love to her late in their marriage; he preferred spending his time fishing (an obvious phallic reference). "I still got my biological urges," she tells Hannah; this is evidenced by her two young, tanned beach boys who serve the cravings of this saucy 40 year-old.
Charlotte - All of 16, her sexual awakening began with a young man at her hometown in America; that failed and now she does everything in her power to lure Shannon.
Hannah - Never married, she has no need for sex in her life. In one of the film's most telling scenes, she reveals to Shannon her previous sexual "encounters," which were rather tame and more than a little sad.
It seems that sex is a destroyer of human relationships for these individuals and that love is secondary, if achievable at all. A more immediate problem is conquering one's inner turmoil. When Shannon dives into the sea - "the long swim to China", as he calls it, his path of escape from his demons - he is captured and then tied up on a hammock at the resort. While both Maxine and Hannah try to settle him down as he struggles with his restraints, it is Hannah who tells him that in order to bring his life back to some sort of order, he must face his own problems and encounter them head on. She refers to "the blue devil" she once encountered and how she "showed him I could endure him." This explanation seems a bit simple, given the complexities of her - and everyone's life in this story - but it has given her inner peace.
The symbolism of God is a strong one in this tale. On the surface level, Shannon is an Episcopalian minister and the women in the tour group are from a Baptist college - there is a natural struggle between these two (one wonders if Williams was arguing against religion in general here). Beyond that, Shannon talks of playing God when he agrees to cut loose an iguana that has been tied up at the resort, much as he himself was constrained a few moments earlier. He is cutting loose "one of God's creatures at the end of his rope," he tells Hannah. His life - and perhaps the lives of everyone here - is similar to a jungle animal, moving about any which way, yearning only for freedom. For the iguana, this freedom is spatial, while for the humans, it is freedom from failure and disappointment. Each character carries around a trunk load of baggage, and as they open up to each other, we see that only Hannah and her father, who yearns to finish his final poem, have freed themselves from their daily inner struggles; they are clearly at peace with themselves and the world.
The scene of capitulation between Shannon and Maxine that marks the end of the film - how will she manage the resort following the death of her husband - is elegantly handled; the final shot is one of the most touching in all of Huston's films. Shannon's night of self discovery, under the lightning strikes (the hand of God?), tied up, listening to Hannah explain her path to inner peace, has given him a clear vision of the road ahead. That in turn lets Maxine transform her anger - she is mad at the world for any number of matters, not the least of which is her turning 40 - and see her future in simple, loving terms.
The closing lines of dialogue between Maxine and Shannon are quite touching and serve as a lovely conclusion to this film. Now at peace, she tells him that they should go down to the beach, as the temperature is not too hot. "Well, I can get down the hill, but I'm not sure about getting back up," Shannon remarks. "I'll get you back up," says Maxine. "I'll always get you back up."