Film Review – The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Posted On June 10, 2021
A timeless classic directed and co-written by John Houston based on another great Tennessee Williams play. Anthony Veiller was the Houston co-writer. A not rated 10 out of 10 despite winning no Oscars except for “Best Costume Design, Black and White” for Dorothy Jeakins. Good for Jeakins. But the absence of Oscars for this film in the categories of “Best Performance”, “Best Screenplay” and “Best Direction” is nothing short of a joke to the rest of the movie fans.
I realize that it is not polite to watch movies for “messages.” (“Use Western Union instead!” As the old joke goes).
But I still think that this has a very clear “core concept” that is expressed by Deborah Kerr (playing Hannah Jelkes, a sensitive painter who travels the world with her poet grandfather and earns whatever she can by doing quick live sketches) towards the end of the second act:
“Acceptance of life is surely the first requirement to live it.”
The volatile trio of Richard Burton (Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon), Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner (Maxine Faulk) weave fiber by fiber this very humane and moving story of the fall and redemption of an Episcopal pastor, of his desperate struggle . to save his soul and find some consolation other than alcohol.
By peeling off layer after layer from a man’s soul, Tennessee Williams and John Houston gift us with the agony of Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, a man caught between the strict demands of his vocation as a man of God and the temptations of his flesh and his mind as an average creation of the same power. Hannah Jelkes and Maxine Faulk deal with his unexpected release, whom he tries to control like everyone else, but fails, for his own good.
The film begins with the motif of “captivity” at all levels. Parishioners are imprisoned for their blindness and rigidity. Rev. Shannon imprisoned by his own volcanic desires and disillusionment with his parish. And a wild iguana is forced to live a captive life, tied to a wooden platform by a tightrope around its neck.
When that “night of the iguana” ends, everyone is released from their ties, fears and limitations, including the iguana. That’s the kind of life-changing night that Tennessee Williams has brought to life. It is still chilling and liberating 42 years after the film’s release.
The story, at a “realistic” level (one of the two levels of existence posed in the film), is not complicated at all. It is on the other “fantastic” level where her magic of temporary liberation slowly unfolds like an intoxicating rose.
Rev. Shannon loses her job after accusing her parishioners of insincerity and superficiality and kicking them out of her church.
A few years later we see him as a tour guide in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, taking a group of elderly women on a sightseeing tour, to show them the “wonders of God” as explained by a “man of God.” However, he certainly doesn’t like the outspoken advances of one of the tour participants, 17-year-old Charlotte Goodall. After all, that’s how he got into trouble at home when another loving young parishioner visited him in his church office. Although the reverend first suggested that they pray together on their knees, it soon led to other things that ended their church career.
The Reverend Shannon does her best to keep Charlotte at bay, but she is the spoiled daughter of a wealthy and successful man and she won’t take no for an answer. While pressuring the alcoholic Shannon, her secret admirer and tour leader Judith Fellowes (played as a hot knife through butter by Grayson Hall) fires a fit of jealousy and brings the vulnerable Shannon to life.
Shannon is still trying to fix her life, even though he is firmly in the bottle. Its internal circuitry is too damaged to withstand the high voltage of Fellowes’ cruel attacks. She threatens to arrest him for “seducing a minor” as soon as they do. return to the United States. Unable to face the reality of his own attraction to the “pretty dove” Charlotte, Fellowes vows to destroy Shannon’s second race and livelihood and appears capable of carrying out his threat.
To ensure there is no career-disrupting development, Shannon takes the entire group to a mountaintop resort run by his former girlfriend, Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), who is a diamond in the rough. , a vivacious woman with a rough exterior but a lonely interior landscape. By stealing the bus’s distributor cap, he makes sure they can’t back out and stay there with him for a while until perhaps Fellowes’s anger subsides to a more manageable level.
Soon after, the group is joined by a traveling cartoonist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her wheelchair-bound poet grandfather. They provide the smooth but solid ballast to balance the mercurial bursts of Rev. Shannon and the equally explosive Faulk.
The decisive scene comes in Act Two when Rev. Shannon is tied to a hammock to help him overcome his alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Playing her redeeming angel, Hannah helps Shannon exorcise her demons by giving her an unforgettable lesson in love.
The scene begins with the Rev. Shannon, very certain of the superiority of the exploits and experiences of his own life and still struggling to free himself from his hammock-jail, asks Hannah if she had ever had any kind of romance in her life. .
“Two,” she admits, to Shannon’s surprise, and proceeds to tell the story of her two experiences, both of which don’t even remotely resemble what earthy Shannon would normally define as a “love story.”
In her first “love experience”, Hannah was only sixteen years old. When a young man pressed his knee against hers in a Nantucket movie theater, she screamed loudly and had the young man arrested. Later, she repented and withdrew her complaint and said that since it was a Greta Garbo movie, she was simply “excited” and that is why she overreacted and created such a scene.
His second “love story”, which took place only 4 years earlier, is an even more curious episode. An Australian underwear salesman whose sketch he drew in a Hong Kong hotel asked him to accompany him for a ride on a sampan. She accepted the offer because he was a very nice man and gave her very good tips for the sketch. On the boat, the Australian salesman got “more nervous” and asked if he would do him a favor. He said he would turn his back on her if she handed him her clothes, which Hannah did.
At this point, Shannon asks what the seller did with her clothes. Hannah says she has no idea because she turned her back on him too. And that was that. The end of the story.
Rev. Shannon is stunned once again, and here is their unforgettable exchange:
Rev. Shannon: “And that experience, you call it …”
Hannah: “Love experience. Yes, Mr. Shannon.”
Rev. Shannon: “That sad and dirty little episode, you call …”
Hannah: “Sad, it certainly was for the poor little man, but why do you call him dirty?”
Rev. Shannon: “You mean you didn’t dislike him?”
Hannah: “I don’t like anything human, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s cruel or violent. And I told him how nice he was. He apologized. Shy. Really, very, well … delicate about it.”
Then she lets go of him, telling him that by hearing her story he is now “exorcised” from all the turmoil in his heart. Why? Because now you are in a state of mind where you are not only reacting to life, but accepting it as well. And he delivers another unforgettable phrase: “Acceptance of life is surely the first requirement to live it.”
Another event: Hannah’s grandfather dies after composing his best poem on “Night of the Iguana.”
The next day, the group of female travelers leaves Shannon with Faulk, who offers her the management of the resort and restaurant, as she is so sick and tired of running the entire show on her own. For the first time, she enjoys the freedom to let go of control over her own affairs and livelihood and share it all with someone she loves. Plus, the presence of a man will help her business by making it attractive to tourists, she calculates.
Hannah receives the same offer, but prefers to move with the independent spirit that she is. She has freed Shannon from her own devastating ties and her job is done. She moves like the summer wind, with her sketchbook under her arm. We’re pretty sure “the elements” will take care of it.
The last scene shows Shannon and Faulk determined to start a new life together at the resort, hopefully a new life fueled by self-understanding, graced by tolerance, and enlightened with truth, a life of liberation where even iguanas live free.
A must see for all movie lovers. It should be an essential element in the “school curriculum” of every movie fan.