A disgraced minister at the end of his rope, the earthy proprietress of a rundown Mexican hotel, a repressed spinster, a promiscuous teenage girl, and a closeted lesbian are only a few of the colorful characters who populate The Night of the Iguana, director John Huston's excellent adaptation of Tennessee Williams' last hit play. Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr file superior performances in this engrossing study of the tenuous nature and supreme importance of human relationships. A remastered transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, solid audio, and a couple of interesting extras distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of this well-made, but often overlooked adult drama. Highly Recommended.
Adapting the provocative, titillating plays of Tennessee Williams often proved a dicey proposition during Hollywood's Golden Age. Because the Motion Picture Production Code wouldn't allow such taboo topics as homosexuality, abortion, and castration to be addressed on screen, key narrative and thematic elements of Williams' dramas had to be watered down, altered, or omitted altogether to pass muster. Anyone familiar with Williams who has seen the film versions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth will know what I'm talking about, but by the time The Night of the Iguana went before the cameras in late 1963, the censors had lost much of their clout. Scripts could more freely address potent issues and employ more colorful language, and the result is a frank, earthy, and wholly satisfying adaptation of what would be Williams' last Broadway hit.
Unjustly overshadowed by more famous Williams plays, The Night of the Iguana stands as one of the writer's most enriching and uplifting dramas. The story of the fall and rise of T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton), a disgraced minister who was banished from his church after a sexual encounter with a young Sunday School teacher, tackles such familiar Williams themes as addiction, self-loathing, animalistic desires, guilt, weakness, cruelty, hypocrisy, and regret, but does so with more nuance and introspection than many Williams works. The broken-down Shannon, who now works as a guide for a tour company that takes church groups to Mexico's historic religious sites, seeks grace and redemption, but can't escape the demons within and without that doggedly torment him.
Alcohol is one, and Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon), a promiscuous nymphet who's determined to tarnish her "good" name and seduce him, is another. Her brazen attempts drive not only Shannon to distraction but also her jealous, vindictive chaperone, Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), a closeted lesbian who hides behind a veil of sanctimonious morality to mask her obsession with her teenage charge. Judith vows to ruin Shannon and pushes him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. Lost, desperate, and at the end of his rope, Shannon hijacks the tour and takes his captive clients to a faded seaside hotel in Puerta Vallerta, where he often takes refuge in times of trouble. (The Mexican hotspot was just a sleepy, tiny village at the time of shooting, but The Night of the Iguana put Puerta Vallerta on the map, leading to a tourist boom that continues to this day.) His longtime friend, the sassy, bawdy, recently widowed Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), owns the establishment and agrees to let Shannon and his crew shack up while he tries to settle down.
As Judith's relentless pressure intensifies, Shannon crumbles, and his wild ravings lead to an intervention by Maxine and Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a prim, penniless spinster who peddles her amateur artwork to tourists while tending to her ailing 97-year-old grandfather (Cyril Delevanti). The two nomads fortuitously arrive at the hotel just before Shannon cracks up, and their ensuing connection rankles Maxine, who fears the more refined, intellectual, and delicate Hannah might supplant her.
The Night of the Iguana examines the necessity of human connection and preaches the acceptance of not only human frailties, but also the quirks and proclivities that rigid societies don't tolerate. All the characters are outcasts or misfits who struggle to survive in their own way and face different challenges, but they all crave connections, be they romantic or platonic, sexual, emotional, or spiritual. "What is important is that one is never alone," Hannah says. The statement may be simple, but keeping loneliness and isolation at bay isn't so easy, especially in our current day and age, which makes that quiet assertion resonate more strongly now than perhaps it did at the time of the movie's release.
Williams packs a lot of angst, messy entanglements, and thought-provoking themes into his tale, but thanks to John Huston's robust direction, the film never feels bloated, overwrought, or didactic. The genius of Williams lies in his ability to crystallize ideas and emotions without belaboring them - some of his lines cut like a knife and ring with soul-rattling truth - and Huston's script, written with two-time Oscar nominee Anthony Veiller, respects its source. Though the screenplay deftly opens up the narrative and adds a lengthy prologue, it remains faithful to both the tortured, conflicted, and downtrodden characters and Williams' lyrical prose, which explores the fragility and resilience of the human spirit with warmth, empathy, and tremendous insight.
Aside from Streetcar's Stanley Kowalski, Shannon just might be Williams' most fascinating male creation. Shannon's crisis of faith forms the drama's crux, and as he fights to free himself from the devil's grip and achieve redemption from a God he has too often betrayed, religious imagery and debates abound. Burton, who had just played another anguished man of the cloth in Becket, attacks Shannon with a mixture of bravado, indignation, and a world-weary despair that makes his performance riveting. Burton received a Best Actor Oscar nod for Becket, and if MGM hadn't released The Night of the Iguana the same year, he surely would have gotten one for Shannon, too.
Burton, Gardner, and Kerr make a formidable trio and their interactions crackle with tension. As Maxine, Gardner channels her inner Bette Davis, who originated the role in the Broadway production, and the result is a broad, showy, but undeniably electric portrayal. Williams created a slew of larger-than-life female characters during his career and Maxine is certainly one of them. Gardner sinks her teeth into the part and her explosions of temper are something to see, but it's her quiet, sensitive moments that really impress, especially her delivery of the film's final line, which was not in the play, yet beautifully captures the story's essence.
Kerr's luminous work lies in stark contrast to Gardner's histrionics, and her heartbreaking dialogue with Burton that comprises the movie's second act holds us spellbound. By this time, Kerr already had been nominated for six Best Actress Oscars (the Academy would finally give her an honorary statuette in 1994), and it's a shame she didn't get her seventh nod for this understated, honest, and deeply moving performance. The fiery Grayson Hall, as the fierce, spiteful Miss Fellowes, did garner a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her venomous portrayal (she lost to Lila Kedrova in Zorba the Greek), and Sue Lyon, who made a big splash in her debut film as the title character in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, pretty much reprises the part here in her sophomore outing, but does so with more finesse.
All the actors ignite the screen, but atmosphere plays a big role in The Night of the Iguana, too. You can really feel the heat and humidity, and Huston takes time to honor the distinctive Mexican culture (although a pair of maraca-shaking, shirtless, native beach boys who stick to Maxine like glue are a bit of a caricature). The Oscar-nominated art direction by Stephen B. Grimes (who would finally win the award two decades later for Out of Africa) and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa also enhance the mood. (The costumes by Dorothy Jeakins would win the movie its only Academy Award.)
Williams decried many film adaptations of his plays, but he liked The Night of the Iguana more than most, and it's easy to see why. Its contemporary feel and relatable themes keep it relevant, Huston's restrained direction supplies artistry without grabbing undue attention, and the pitch-perfect casting and marvelous performances bring the characters to life. Oddly, though, despite its stellar reputation, The Night of the Iguana still skulks around like the eponymous reptile in the recesses of Williams' work, but it's high time this meaningful drama emerged from the shadows of Streetcar, Cat, and The Glass Menagerie to take its rightful place as one of the best dramas by one of America's best and most influential playwrights.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Night of the Iguana arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative yields a vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that beautifully reflects the hot, humid atmosphere of Puerta Vallerta, faithfully honors the Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa, and improves immeasurably upon the 2006 DVD. Clarity and contrast are vastly improved, blacks are richer, whites are crisper, and depth is more pronounced. Grain is reduced, yet there's enough of it to preserve the feel of celluloid, and all the speckles, blotches, and white and black vertical lines that plagued the DVD are gone, leaving a pristine image that brims with detail and vitality. The scales and ridges on the titular iguana, the omnipresent sweat that glistens on almost everyone's faces, the torrential rain in the opening scene, and the dilapidated decor in Maxine's rundown hotel are all wonderfully sharp, as are the close-ups that showcase Burton's stubble, Lyons' allure, Kerr's unadorned loveliness, and Gardner's fading glamor. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and though some scenes look softer than others, the transfer remains remarkably consistent throughout. If you're a fan of this searing drama, an upgrade is mandatory.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated, and occasionally robust sound. Subtle atmospherics like the distant surf crashing against the shore, the sea breeze wafting through the palm trees, chirping birds, and buzzing insects are distinct, while sonic accents like the rumbling bus engine, the beach boys' maracas, the gong in Maxine's hotel, shattering glass, thunder, and the sound of a knife chopping off fish heads supply bold shadings that boost dramatic impact. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Benjamin Frankel's music score without any distortion and the all-important dialogue is generally easy to comprehend. (Gardner's lazy Southern drawl renders a few lines unintelligible.) Silences are clean and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle muck up the purity of this solid track.
All the supplements from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Featurette: "Huston's Gamble" (SD, 10 minutes) - This slick 2006 featurette covers the remote Mexican location, the influence of Elizabeth Taylor's presence on the set, a jovial joke John Huston played on the cast, Gardner's nervousness, and the contributions of Tennessee Williams during shooting. Behind-the-scenes color footage, rare photos, and the analysis of a number of film historians distinguish this entertaining piece.
Vintage Featurette: "On the Trail of the Iguana" (SD, 14 minutes) - Filmed in color, this beautiful 1964 promotional short showcases the spectacular Mexican scenery and glamor of the cast (including Burton's future wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who was present during most of the shooting), and is enhanced by plenty of on-set production footage and the audio reflections of Huston, Kerr, Burton, and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
Theatrical Trailers (SD, 5 minutes) - "Since man has known woman --- there has never been such a night!" proclaims the one-minute teaser trailer. The film's original three-and-a-half-minute preview, which features narration by actor James Earl Jones, also uses that line to tout the picture and titillate the audience.
A relatively faithful and often riveting adaptation of Tennessee Williams' last great play, The Night of the Iguana remains a rewarding and moving film experience, thanks to John Huston's robust direction and the magnetic performances of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr. A remastered transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative, solid audio, and all the extras from 2006 DVD distinguish Warner Archive's superior Blu-ray presentation of this oft-neglected yet still potent classic. Highly Recommended.