John Huston did the equivalent of sprinting out of the box, making 1941's The Maltese Falcon for his first movie. Huston just kept on going, turning in classic after classic in a career that spanned five decades and almost 50 movies. Of course, they weren't all classics, and the Hollywood veteran did slow down by the late 1950s. His movies always had a hard, realistic edge that never pulled any punches with their storytelling.
One of his lesser known but highly regarded movies among critics, 1964's The Night of the Iguana, was ahead of its time in its ability to tackle some controversial subject matter and deal with it in an honest and forthright fashion. So a couple years before the drug culture and hippies and Woodstock came along -- and all the freeing attitudes movies dealt with in the late 60s and early 70s -- Huston's movie deals with lesbians, statutory rape, threesomes, pot, and a defrocked priest who may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with a minor, and all of this taking place at a run-down Mexican resort.
Leading a tour bus through Mexico, a former priest, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), doesn't seem to be able to avoid trouble. One of the women on his tour believes he's trying to seduce an underage girl (Sue Lyon) when really the girl, Charlotte, is pursuing Shannon. Pushed to his limit, Shannon freaks out and drives the bus to an old inn cut into a mountainside overlooking the sea near Puerto Vallarta. The women running the inn, Maxine (Ava Gardner), is an old friend of his and is only a few weeks removed from her husband's death. While Shannon deals with the problems among his customers, a woman shows up at the inn, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), who with her poet grandfather is traveling around the world with what little money they have.
Watching this over the last couple days, my first reaction was that the proceedings are all very theatrical from the limited sets to the verbose, larger than life characters. Needless to say, finding out 'Iguana' is based on a play by Tennessee Williams didn't come as much of a surprise. Huston filmed the movie in Mexico -- one of his favorite locations -- and more specifically Puerto Vallarta, but limits much of the story to this seaside inn. The story is almost completely self-contained at the inn and limits the number of people/characters around. It's secluded and because of this, the story keys in exclusively on this variety of people and their issues. No distractions, no diversions, just some weird folks working things out.
The casting is phenomenal with Huston giving his leads -- Burton, Gardner, and Kerr -- a lot of leeway in how to bring their characters to life. I would have paid to listen to Burton read a phone book, his voice is perfect for movies. His Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon is a tough one to read because we don't see the incidents from his past that caused him to be kicked out of the priesthood. Did he or didn't he do it? Who really knows for sure? However you decide to interpret the character, Shannon is fascinating as Burton presents him. This is a good example of a scenery-chewing role with lots of yelling, screaming and theatrics a-plenty. Kerr is just the opposite -- as she almost always was onscreen. She's quiet, well-spoken, dignified and a lady, in the process stealing the scenes the duo have together.
One particular scene with Burton and Kerr late in the movie is the high point and really allows you to get to know these characters. But the real star of the movie is Gardner from character introduction to final scene. She's often remembered as all beauty and no ability because, let's face it, she's drop dead gorgeous. But Ava Gardner was a great actress as well and could easily carry a movie if it was required. She isn't needed to carry 'Iguana' but she does it anyway. Her Maxine lives her life as she tries to transition with her husband's death, and in the process really doesn't care what people think of her or her actions. Throw in a group of middle-aged religious women staying at her inn, and we've got ourselves a situation.
It's a good thing these three main performances are so good -- as is the small supporting cast -- because the subject matter could have easily overshadowed the characters. Of all the things mentioned before, none of them are in your face with an aggressive 'hey, look at what we're talking about style!' Huston doesn't linger on these moments, instead mentioning them and moving on. At one point, Burton's Shannon urinates on the luggage of one of the women, but unless you listen closely you'd never know what he did. He may go for the shock value, but it's over so quick it never gets old, repetitive, or exploitative. It's still more than a little odd hearing about some of these things -- like lesbians or Ava Gardner having a threesome in the ocean with two young Mexican men -- but Huston handles it in a way that is appropriate for the time and the story.
This was a weird movie all-around that got better as the story developed. The first hour was a little slow-going for my taste but picks up when Kerr shows up, seemingly out of nowhere, at Gardner's little inn. The last hour is great with the leads really getting a chance to show off their chops and dive right into the story. It's a beautiful movie filmed in black and white that if nothing else will surely bring up some interesting conversations. Very different from most movies made in 1964, and for that reason alone worth checking out. Available to watch on Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 11.
The Night of the Iguana <----trailer (1964): ***/****