Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Night of the Iguana

Rev Shannon (Richard Burton) has problems of the flesh. This is made clear by the sermon he gives at the opening of the movie, centered around a verse from Proverbs, that "a man who can't control his own spirit is like a house without walls." Shannon is tense already, but the whispering of the congregation is too much for him, and he has an outburst, which sends his congregation running for the door. He follows them out preaching the whole time telling them "you've turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults."You can imagine he's dealing with the aftermath of a sex scandal, and it appears that it has cost him his church.

Shannon appears some time later as a tour guide for Blake's bus tours in Mexico. He's guiding a group of elderly church ladies on a tour of religious sites. The group also contains one attractive, too young lady, Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon) who hangs all over him. Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall) the leader of the church ladies group is watching Charlotte, and is keeping an eye on Shannon, warning him not to try anything. Whether she's protective or jealous of Charlotte's attention is a matter of debate, but it's clear that she doesn't like Shannon or trust him. Fellowes reminds Shannon that Charlotte is underage and refers to a scandal in Tierra Caliente, which she doesn't want to know the details of, because if she did she'd "have to take steps." Shannon claims there was nothing to it, but hotel room keys getting mixed up. The church ladies notice young boys on the roadside catching iguanas and are shocked when Shannon explains that they eat them.

While Shannon seems to know better than to entertain Charlotte's advances, he isn't able to completely disinterest himself. While he advises her against getting involved with him, he hardly pushes her away. The bus soon has a blowout, while Hank, the driver, attends to it, Charlotte joins Shannon for a swim, telling him she admires his profession and how he's interested in people's souls. Shannon again tries to humor her without being over interested but she is very persistent. She explains that her father sent her out of the country due to an incident with a boy and insisted that she have a chaperon, Fellowes. While they swim and chat Ms. Fellowes calls Charlotte relentlessly from the beach. They don't appear to hear her, but whether that's by choice is not clear. Charlotte convinces Shannon to take her hand in the water. Ms. Fellowes appears on the verge of a breakdown, when they get to shore, slapping Charlotte, and calling Shannon a beast.

Once they settle down in a hotel for the night, it becomes clear that Charlotte isn't going to take no for an answer. She sneaks out of the room she shares with Fellowes and into Shannon's room. Shannon tells her to leave, but has difficulty being convincing. She reveals that she plans to slip away the next day and catch a plane home, where she'll wait for Shannon. The purpose of her visit is to "say goodbye" Once she starts kissing him, he loses his will to resist. Fellowes has woken up in the next room and is begging Charlotte's forgiveness until she realizes Charlotte isn't in the room. She rightly suspects where Charlotte is and pulls her back to her proper bedroom, threatening Shannon, before going back to bed. The next morning, Shannon acts like nothing happened, but nobody will take to him. The driver tells Shannon that Fellowes had asked him to send a telegraph, looking into Shannon's background. He insisted that it wasn't a driver's job, and she said she would send one herself.

Shannon, at that point takes over the bus and starts driving recklessly, scaring all his passengers. He stops, takes his bags and the distributor head from the bus, telling everyone to follow him up the hill with their things. He's greeted by the proprietor, Maxine (Ava Gardner) who recognizes him and seems delighted to see him. She informs him that her husband Fred has passed away, which distresses Shannon as he was hoping Fred would save him. She has two younger Mexican boys get Shannon's bags and bring them inside. She agrees to help him. When Hank confronts Shannon, he explains that his plan is to keep them there so Fellowes can't get the answer to her telegram, which is being sent to the last hotel, and thus can't use the information against him. During that time he can get back in the good graces of the rest of the group. Hank seems upset about Charlotte and reveals that she's made up her own version of events, stating that Shannon made her go into his room because he couldn't stand the idea of her catching a plane to go home. Hank clearly believes she's an innocent girl being preyed on by Shannon. Maxine gets a kick out of the situation, laughing at the thought of Shannon's predicament:
Maxine: So you appropriated the young chick and the old hens are squawking, huh?
Shannon: It's very serious. The child is emotionally precocious.
Maxine: Bully for her.
Shannon: Also, she is traveling under the wing of a military escort of a butch vocal teacher.
He explains that Fellowes plans to charge him with statutory rape. Maxine tells him she doesn't know what that means, and Shannon tells her: "That's when a man is seduced by a girl under twenty."

The group makes their way, with difficulty, up the hill. Fellowes and Charlotte are fighting. Charlotte insists on her own room, and Fellowes, says, fine, telling her she's a free agent until they get back. Of course none of the group is happy with Shannon, as he's the one who has stranded them. Fellowes wastes no time putting in a call for the telegram except that the "circuits are busy"  Shannon confronts her, explaining that he's at the end of his rope asking for her understanding. Fellowes isn't interested in the least, citing many peroblems with the tour and Shannon personally. Maxine gives Shannon a shave and he explains that "the spook" has moved in (his term for his own panic) "Just panic?" Maxine asks, and Shannon responds, "Don't say just panic like you'd say 'just leprosy.' Panic is serious. She asks him about going back to the church and Shannon says he's written to the bishop. Maxine tells him "You know, people to go to church to hear atheistic sermons."

Two more visitors show up out of the blue a young woman and a very elderly man. While Shannon eagerly helps the old man up the hill to the hotel, Maxine gives them a rather chilly reception. The woman introduces herself as Hannah Jenkes, and explains that they need a room. Maxine tells her they're closed but Shannon persuades her to give them a break. Hannah brags about her grandfather being "the oldest living and practicing poet." When Maxine runs off to grab the phone, Hannah changes her tone, telling Shannon, she doesn't think Maxine will take them in. Shannon reassures her that she will. Maxine tells Shannon that she informed the caller (for Fellowes) that the guests had checked out and he's ecstatic. When Maxine asks for $6.00 from Hannah, she informs her that they operate on a "special basis" paying their way by her grandfather's recitations, and her own sale of sketches. While not initially impressed, Hannah's pleading gets Maxine to allow them one night. Maxine's Mexican boys are chasing iguanas, Maxine explains to Hannah that they're planning to eat them.

Shannon helps Hannah get "Nono" to a bed so he can lay down as he isn't looking well. Nono recites lines of poetry to himself. Shannon lays down in a hammock, finding Fred's shoes in it and setting them aside. Fellowes, meanwhile has discovered that her call was cut off, and calls again determined to hold on the phone until she gets the information. She soon storms outside to Shannon calling him "Seducer" over and over and accuses him of posing as a minister Even Charlotte is shocked. Fellowes goes on to explain that her brother has contacted Blake's Tours, and they have promised to take action. She suggests that he has made a career of seducing young girls, and tells him that her brother is a judge who has advised Blake's that they don't need to hold to their contract, given Shannon's past. Fellowes is beaming with the destructive information, happy for the first time. Shannon refutes her accusations and excuses himself. Maxine makes a couple of digs at Fellowes before checking the kitchen. Hannah has watched the whole scene from her room and follows Maxine to the kitchen, offering to help. Maxine accuses her of trying to make herself useful in order to extend their stay. Hannah counters by suggesting that she thinks a good meal could soothe Fellowes animosity towards Shannon. At that, Maxine says "You're a hustler, a fantastic, cool hustler." The two women share a moment, Hannah admitting that she's completely broke and Maxine revealing a native term, neaning "No Sweat." which Fred thought contained all the wisdom of the east. She reveals to Hannah that the marriage was unconventional. Fred was out fishing all the time and they never slept together. When she started going "Night swimming" with the Mexican boys, Fred didn't care and just stayed out fishing. Apparently Fred was a good listener and knew what bothered you before you told him. She reveals that she went "on the make" for Shannon, but Shannon wouldn't allow it because of his feelings for Fred.

Shannon is a wreck in his own room, when Charlotte lets herself in, She surprises him making him break a glass. He's so frantic that he starts walking through the glass without even noticing. Charlotte tells him she doesn't care what they think, and wants to stay there with him and get married. Shannon explains:
"Nothing could be worse for a girl in your unstable condition, to be mixed up with a man in, in my unstable condition because two people in unstable conditions are like two countries facing each other in unstable conditions. The, eh, destructive potential, eh, could blow the whole world to bits!" He continues walking through the glass and insisting that she leave. She is persistent and finally he has to physically remove her. Hannah hears her yelling and shows up and notices his feet, helping him clean and bandage them. He then assists her putting Nono back in bed, when they hear he's fallen out of it. Hannah and Shannon start to understand each other a bit, Shannon revealing the incident with a Sunday School teacher which got him in trouble and how he ended up doing bus tours. Hannah asks what he'll do if Ms. Fellowes has him fired. He says he'll either go back to the church or "the long swim to China"

Maxine finds the two of them together and jealous of the vibe between them has an outburst, getting into a shoving match Shannon using the drink cart. She sees the sketch that Hannah has drawn of Shannon and when Hannah offers it to her, Maxine says "No thanks honey, one of him's enough." Hannah and Maxine face off, Hannah stating she's going to walk into town with her grandfather, rather than stay where she's not wanted. Maxine calms down, revealing that she is upset because of the vibrations between her and Shannon and she really shouldn't be. When Maxine remarks on how wretched Shannon is, Hannah reminds her "Those are his circumstances, not the man himself." Ms. Fellowes is at the time looking everywhere for Charlotte, who is drinking on the beach dancing with the Mexican boys. When the older man running a bar on the beach side tell her to leave, having the boys pick her up and remove her, Hank steps in. The boys beat him up very easily, but Charlotte is still impressed and becomes taken with Hank.

While they have lunch, Shannon gets a call from Mr. Blake, his employer. Shannon tells of Blake, and afterwards Hank holds Shannon while Charlotte gets the Distributor cap from his pocket. They start heading to the bus and Shannon takes the opportunity to piss on Fellowes' suitcase, shocking the group. Fellowes is still out for blood and confronts Shannon again, threatening viciously that she'll have him blacklisted and charged with numerous things. Shannon jokes it off, but Maxine is bothered and starts putting Ms. Fellowes in her place. She suggests that Fellowes real problem is that Charlotte likes men. Ms. Fellowes drops her viciousness and asks sincerely, "What is she talking about." Shannon however demands that Maxine stop, telling Ms. Fellowes "Let it go now, Ms. Fellowes, the party's over. Right now I'm no longer in a position to discharge my responsibility to protect you, a responsibility from which you discharged me. Just go Ms. Fellowes." Maxine doesn't understand why Shannon stopped her and asks Shannon why. He explains:

"Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her."
Maxine: "Well she's done a pretty good job of destroying you!"
Shannon: "Maxine, don't rob me of my own small accomplishments."

With everyone gone, Shannon starts choking himself trying to break the chain of his cross necklace. Hannah stops him helping him get it off his neck and then he announces he's going to take "the long swim to China"  Maxine however, has her Mexican boys chase him and tie him up in the hammock. Hannah asks Maxine to make some opium tea to calm him down. Shannon screams to be let go, but Hannah sternly refuses.
Shannon: I'm panicking!
Hannah: I know that.
Shannon: A man can die of panic!
Hannah: Not when he enjoys it as much as you do, Dr. Shannon.
Shannon is extremely angry, telling Hannah that she is no longer asexual, because enjoying having him tied up proves she's a woman. He then attacks Maxine, because the tea is too hot. He nastily suggest that she go "bathing with the beachboys" as his presence shouldn't stop her anymore than Fred's did. Hurt, she calls the boys to go for a swim after telling Shannon off. Hannah discusses panic and loneliness with him and he seems to calm down and listen to her. Maxine meanwhile loses interest in the beach boys, and heads towards the hotel. Hannah reveals some details about her love life at Shannon's urging. She has had two experiences both very unconventional. Shannon seems to gain respect for her after her admission. He's surprised that one encounter didn't disgust her, and she remarks:
"Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it's unkind, violent"
She then tells Shannon about her own "spook" which she called "the blue devil" and when Shannon wants to know how she beat her blue devil. She tells him it's just endurance. She has let Shannon free now and they notice the iguana tied up and Hannah takes pity on it. Maxine comes up in time to see Shannon cutting it loose.
Maxine: What the hell are you doing, Shannon?
Shannon: I just cut loose one of God's creatures at the end of his rope.
Maxine: What for?
Shannon: So that one of God's creatures could be free from panic, and scamper home safe and free. A little act of grace, Maxine.

Nono then wakes and finishes the poem he's been working on, Hannah writes it down as he recites, assuring him that it's beautiful. He says a prayer looking at the moon in his chair and passes on. Maxine assumes that Hannah and Shannon are taking off together, and graciously offers Hannah the job of managing the hotel saying that she wants to take off herself as she's tired of it. After Maxine has another outburst, Hannah and Shannon realize that he belongs with Maxine, and Hannah takes off leaving Shannon to tell Maxine he's staying with her.

The Night of the Iguana is a movie about broken people "at the end of their rope" For me it's Richard Burton's performance that makes it most remarkable. He's utterly convincing as a man of such range that he can chase his congregation out of a church screaming that he's a man of God, steal a part from a bus to give himself time to plan his way out of trouble. He pisses on luggage to show his contempt but then prevents the destruction of the luggage's owner. What makes the character work is that the character, retains a dignity and empathy beyond question. He doesn't assign blame for his own mess, just tries to deal with his panic. Even with every reason to hate Miss Fellowes, he won't allow Maxine to hurt her more than she could bear. Fellowes likely doesn't know the difference, but he does and knows that's the important thing.

Of course this kind of character depth is only possible due to Tennessee Williams story, and John Huston's particular vision of it. The environment is a character itself, the hotel cementing the feeling of a place of isolation where the issues facing these characters can be confronted without the outside world intruding. While definitely melodramatic, it's melodrama done right, examining concerns that warrant the treatment. It never gives the feeling of being unbelievable. The characters address huge ideas and sentiments sincerely, which if not for the top class acting would never have been possible.

We don't question that Shannon is broken, neither do we question that he's worth something. As Hannah says "those are the circumstances, not the man." The supporting cast is also terrific, Ava Gardner's Maxine is fiery and so full of life, it's easy to see why Shannon thinks of her as indestructible. But like Shannon she has a remarkable range, while capable of being quite fierce, she often takes the opportunity to be kind. She presents herself as a worthy match for Shannon throughout. Deborah Kerr's part is a departure from them, an outsider to everyone, she's enigmatic and almost sexless, although she establishes that this isn't truly so. She is proud, and kind and resourceful, yet always somehow distant. Other than her grandfather, she seems to need no attachment, yet delights in helping others find their way to their own. Grayson Hall's repressed Miss Fellowes, is also pitch perfect, the self perceived, holiest of them all, also being the only character who seems to be without any human kindness and the most hopeless of them all, unable to even look at many basic facts about herself.

A truly brilliant performance from Richard Burton, as a man  who carries the best and worst of the human condition between his sense of humor and his panic, and he has to go quite a ways to reconcile the parts. Burton is as trapped as the Iguana tied with the rope. By recognizing the plight's of Hannah, Maxine, and even Miss Fellowes, he sees himself more clearly and can finally believe in a small act of grace and hope to endure his panic.



Widow_Lady302 said...

I have always wanted to see this movie because Grayson Hall was in it (And I love her)...I have never found it yet, but now really want to see it. Sue Lyon kind of vanished after this movie (Lolita curse I think) but as usual you wet my desire to see something even more

INDBrent said...

Yes, Grayson is a great actress. Sue Lyon was around but not so high profile, you only have a small window to play Lolita after all. You should definitely see this one!

Tina D said...

Sounds like a interesting movie, I'll have to see if I can find a copy to watch, thanks for the heads up.

Tina D

Dan Fleming said...

Very thorough and excellent review Brent. You made some great points.

INDBrent said...

@Tina, Wonderful! Feel free to come back with more thoughts when you see it! I'd love to hear your take!

INDBrent said...

@Dan, Thank you Dan!