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Movie Review – The Night of the Iguana (1964)
A timeless classic directed and co-written by John Houston from another great play by Tennessee Williams. Anthony Veiller was Houston’s co-writer. Unqualified 10 out of 10 despite the fact that it won no Oscar 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 Actor”, “Best Screenplay” and “Best Director” is nothing but a joke for the rest of us movie fans.
I am aware that it is not polite to watch movies for “messages”. (“Use Western Union instead!” as the old joke goes.)
But I still think this one has a very clear “core concept” expressed by Deborah Kerr (playing Hannah Jelkes, a sensitive painter who travels the world with her poet grandfather and earns what she can by doing quick live sketches) towards the end of the second act:
“Accepting life is certainly the first condition for living it.”
The volatile trio of Richard Burton (Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon), Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner (Maxine Faulk) weave thread by thread 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 comfort other than alcohol.
Peeling away the layers of the human soul one after the other, Tennessee Williams and John Houston treat us to the torment of Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, a man caught between the strict demands of his calling as a man of God and the temptations of his body and mind as just an average creation of the same power. His unexpected deliverance is provided by Hannah Jelkes and Maxine Faulk, whom he tries to control like everyone else, but fails – for his own good.
The film begins with the motif of “captivity” on all levels. Parishioners are imprisoned by their blindness and stiffness. Rev. Shannon imprisoned by his own volcanic desires and disillusionment with his parish. And the wild iguana is forced to live a captive life, tied to the wooden deck with a strong rope around its neck.
When that “night of the iguana” is over, everyone is freed from their chains, fears and limitations, including the iguana. It’s the kind of life-changing night that Tennessee Williams brought to life. It’s still poignant and liberating 42 years after the film was released.
The story, on a “realistic” level (one of the two levels of existence mentioned in the film), is not at all complicated. On the second and “fantastic” level, her time-release magic slowly unfolds like an intoxicating rose.
Reverend Shannon loses his job after accusing his parishioners of insincerity and shallowness and expelling them from his church.
A few years later we see him as a tour guide in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, taking a group of elderly ladies on a tour of the city, to show them the “miracles of God” as explained by the “man of God”. However, he certainly does not like the open performances of one of the participants of the tour, 17-year-old Charlotte Goodall. After all, that’s how he got into trouble at home when another young parishioner in love visited him in his church office. Although the reverend first suggested that they pray together while kneeling, this soon led to other things that ended his church career.
Reverend Shannon does everything he can to keep Charlotte at arm’s length, but she’s the spoiled daughter of a very successful and wealthy man and won’t take no for an answer. As he pushes himself towards the alcoholic Shannon, her secret admirer and tour leader Judith Fellowes (played like a hot knife through butter by Grayson Hall) provokes a fit of jealousy and makes life for the vulnerable Shannon pure misery.
Shannon is still trying to piece his life together even though he’s firmly on the bottle, His internal circuitry is simply too damaged to withstand the high voltage of Fellowes’ cruel attacks — she threatens to arrest him for “seduction of a minor” as soon as they return to the US. Unable to face the reality of his own attraction to “pretty dove” Charlotte, Fellowes vows to destroy Shannon’s second career and livelihood, and looks like she’s capable of carrying out her threat.
To ensure that such a career development doesn’t happen, Shannon whisks the whole group away to a mountaintop resort run by his old flame Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), who is a diamond in the rough, a vivacious woman with a rough exterior but a lonely inner landscape. By stealing the bus’s distributor cap, he ensures that they won’t be able to get back, but will stay there with him for a while until perhaps Fellowes’ rage subsides to a manageable level.
Soon after, the group is joined by traveling sketch artist Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr) and her wheelchair-bound poet grandfather. They provide a gentle yet firm ballast to balance out the Rev’s lively effusions. Shannon and the equally explosive Faulk.
The defining scene comes in the second act when Reverend Shannon is tied to a hammock to help him overcome his alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Acting as her redeeming angel, Hannah helps Shannon banish his demons by teaching him an unforgettable lesson about love.
The scene opens with Reverend Shannon, very confident in the superiority of his own life’s exploits and experiences and still struggling to break free from his hammock prison, asking Hannah if she has ever had any kind of romantic relationship in her life.
“Two,” she admits, to Shannon’s surprise, and proceeds to recount the story of her two experiences, both of which don’t even remotely resemble what Earthly Shannon would normally define as a “love affair.”
In her first “love experience” Hannah was only sixteen years old. When a young man pressed his knee against hers in a movie theater in Nantucket, she screamed loudly and arrested the young man. She later repented and withdrew the complaint and said that since it was a Greta Garbo movie, she was just “excited” and that’s why she overdid it and made such a scene.
Her second “love affair”, which happened only 4 years earlier, is an even more interesting episode. An Australian underwear salesman whose sketch she drew in a hotel in Hong Kong asked her to join him on a sampan ride. She accepted the offer because he was such a gentle man and gave her very good tips for the skit. On the boat, the Aussie trader became “more agitated” and asked if she would do him a favor. He said he would turn his back on her if she gave him her clothes, which Hannah did.
At this point Shannon asks her what the shopkeeper did with her clothes. Hana says she has no idea because she also turned her back on him. And that was it. End of story.
Rev. Shannon is stunned once again, and here’s their unforgettable exchange:
Rev. Shannon: “And that experience, you call it…”
Hannah: “Love experience. Yes, I love Mr. Shannon.”
Rev. Shannon: “That sad little dirty episode you call…”
Hannah: “Sad, it certainly was for the poor little man, but why are you calling him dirty?”
Rev. Shannon: “You don’t think that disgusted you?”
Hannah: “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind or violent. And I told you how gentle he was. I’m sorry. Shy. Really, very, well… delicate about it.”
She then frees him, telling him that by hearing her story he is now “cast out” of all the excitement in his heart. Why? Because now he is in a state of mind where he not only reacts to life but also accepts it. And she delivers another memorable sentence: “Accepting life is certainly the first condition for living it.”
Another development – Hanna’s grandfather dies after composing his best song ever in the “night of the iguana”.
The next day, a group of traveling ladies leave Shannon with Faulk offering to run the resort and restaurant because she’s fed up with running the whole show by herself. For the first time, she enjoys the freedom to relinquish control of her jobs and livelihood and share it all with someone she loves. In addition, the presence of a man will help her business by making it attractive to female tourists, she believes.
Hannah gets the same offer, but she prefers to move as the independent spirit that she is. She freed Shannon from his own destructive bonds and her work was done. He goes on like a summer breeze, with a drawing pad under his arm. We’re pretty sure the “elements” will take care of her.
The final scene shows Shannon and Faulk deciding to start a new life together at the resort, hopefully a new life powered by self-understanding, graced with tolerance and illuminated by truth, a life of liberation where even the iguanas live freely.
A must watch for all movie lovers. It should be an essential item in the “school program” of every cinema lover.
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