Directed by John Huston
Based on the play The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, John Huston
Starring: Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, Grayson Hall
A defrocked priest (Burton) is forced to face his weaknesses as he leads a group of women on a tour through Mexico. Tension between him and the leader (Hall) of the women’s group soon leads to unforeseen consequences.
This story comes from the Tony nominated play of the same name, by Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire). John Huston (The African Queen) directed this film, using a script he co-wrote with Anthony Veiller (The Killers (1946)). This cast features Richard Burton (The Longest Day), Ava Gardner (Mogambo), Deborah Kerr (Separate Tables), Sue Lyon (Lolita), and Grayson Hall (That Darn Cat!). This film would eventually be nominated for four Academy Awards.
This story evolved from a one-act play by Tennessee Williams into a feature film. (There were multiple versions of the play, including a three-act production.) Huston and Veiller did a nice job taking the play and turning the material into something that worked on the big screen. Like most plays-turned-films, this one has so many great characters. The story is really driven by the incredibly flawed collection of people it presents. The tone for the story is set early, establishing a baseline for the grit and drama of the film. What makes this one clever is the fact that there are a number of moments where the story appears to lighten, only to pull back to that grit with startling effect.
The dialogue is full of raw emotion. There are moments where the anger and the frustration seem to be almost overwhelming. The emotional shifts of this one might be a bit surprising, but the main plot is somewhat predictable. This isn’t a major issue since the twists and turns come through the outlook of the characters. It’s also important to mention the strong sense of sexual repression that permeates this movie. Like a lot of Williams’ plays, this story uses sexual frustrations to elevate the drama and intensity. This movie uses that tension and creates something surprisingly powerful with it.
The actors did an incredible job creating a group of characters that couldn’t be more different. The one element they share is a sense of frustration over the way their lives have gone. Richard Burton is wonderful throughout this movie. His sadness, frustration, and passion mix together and create a complex character. He uses these emotions to build good chemistry with all of the other cast members. He has some real talent to work with in this one. Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr both connect with him in entirely different ways. Their individual performances also dig deep into the emotional backgrounds of their characters. Sue Lyon also does a great job playing an impetuous and reckless young woman. Her work with Burton provides for some explosive moments in the movie. The best chemistry in this movie comes between Burton and Grayson Hall. Hall’s performance is intense to the point of almost being overpowering. Their characters verbal confrontations create some great payoffs in the film. This cast elevated the script, giving it a power that’s unexpected but wonderful. Surprisingly, the only acting nomination in this one was for Best Supporting Actress for Grayson Hall.
This film is nicely shot, using the camera to build visual tension. Each shot is set up perfectly, with nothing feeling out-of-place. Gabriel Figueroa (La Perla) earned his only Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography (B&W) for his work on this one. The film also earned a nomination for Best Production Design (B&W). The only Oscar win for this film was Dorothy Jeakins’ (The Sound of Music) Best Costume Design (B&W) award.
This movie made such a huge impact on the people of Puerto Vallarta that a statue of John Huston was erected in his honor. To some degree, this film helped to put that small town on the map. The movie also provided some unique fodder for the tabloids due to the rumors surrounding the extra-curricular activities of Burton and his then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
This is a movie that hasn’t gained the level of cultural relevance that it might deserve. Like many films from the 60s, this one does have some racist elements that can feel awkward. Luckily, these moments don’t last long, and they’re not central to the story. This movie examines characters in a very intelligent and powerful way. If you’re a fan of Tennessee Williams, this is a must-see movie. I would also suggest this to fans of the stars. It’s not always comfortable, but it pays off in all the right ways. I give this one 4.1 out of 5 stars.