Deeply, unremittingly accepting John Huston’s blithely woozy, boozed-out vibe in full flourish, the strung-out, rampaging The Night of the Iguana is probably a little farcical in its over-heatedness. But then, this is Tennessee Williams. At least we’re in the presence of a full-throated, deviant, near-hallucinogenic dive into haughty, drunken melodrama, much more synonymous with the post-Faulkner Southern-modernist Williams spirit than most other Williams adaptations, usually quasi-heated chamber pieces vaguely tied to false-naturalism. In comparison, Iguana is unapologetic and viciously lacking in timidity, rejecting the half-hearted naturalistic ticks of most Williams adaptations for a merry expression of demented, licentious, sinful goodwill. Unlike, say, the good but overrated A Streetcar Named Desire, where the Method acting bug (as it often did) turned performance into a calculated private experiment rather than a vocally external art, The Night of the Iguana isn’t afraid to be to-the-rafters cinema. Baldly, even oppressively cinematic, it treats the brambles of melodrama as a wellspring of possibility to wrap itself in rather than as a shopworn, past-its-prime memory of Old Hollywood to skirt around.
So whatever shelf-wear lies within is proud, sincere shelf-wear, with the film happily trying on a noir-infused, olden style of saucy cinematic horseplay rather than belabored cinematic mannerism and cold distillation of performative ticks and tricks that can sometimes run amok over films, sucking in all the energy for themselves. The specter of Brando loomed large over Williams adaptations, all indebted to the cathartic success of Elia Kazan’s Method acting test-run in Streetcar and the film’s blend of lived-in naturalism and semi-theatricality. Huston never reduces his film to the level of acting delivery mechanism or apparatus for displaying mannered naturalism; instead, this is an exclusively unmannered exegesis that channels the soaking-wet, humid Southern soul of Williams’ grotesque characters. Rather than emphasizing the letter-of-the-law, Huston fans the flames of the play, hot-and-bothering everyone on display in an impious playground passion play that restores the sensory allure of Williams’ fundamentally melodramatic, id-tortured characters. This is a vision of the world in full-on quiver.
Anyway, this particular tale of a defrocked priest played by Richard Burton being tempted by three women (or, more accurately, tempting himself with them) bears a fearless brutishness and a flop-sweating humidity that is foggy of mind but stout in trembling-camera spirit. Freed from the tyranny of quasi-naturalism, the all-shivers-of-sex style is a second-hand aesthetic sure, but this film dives into it with a galvanic, magnetic spirit. Not as wiry in its aesthetic minimalism as The Misfits, Iguana is liberated from reality only so that it can be unhinged. Although the director always displayed a certain mercenary willingness to tackle any project, his lively aesthetics here emphasize the in-the-moment act of actually tackling it, trying to channel a mad dog of a work and thriving off the dialectic energy between a trampling, wild-horse momentum and all manner of tangents and interpolations. Much like the film’s parenthetical dances interspersed with a maddened energy, The Night of the Iguana wrangles showers of odd angles into a brute force poem of omnipresent rancor erupted by human physicality and oppressive, muggy heat. More than perhaps any film released before 1964, this film is just dripping. With everything.
Admittedly, for all the bodily fluids, it isn’t exactly liquid in tone; the entire film is encased in a drunken, bedraggled internal hysteria (exteriorized in a quivering camera and full-on bouts of sweat) that doesn’t know when to quit. The unctuous aesthetic can flatten the spry, wry undertones of Williams’ writing, but the folly of the film’s somewhat one-note appeal is also its puissance. Much like Burton’s character, Iguana is a cross-hatch of bitter resolve mixed with batty, on-the-fly lack of refinement, a work of off-its-rocker charisma with a scrappy, shaggy socially-unrefined demeanor testing itself in its closeness to people who are even more gleefully overwrought in their upended sexual repression. A little like a work trying to throw itself to its death, it ends up living more fully because of its mobile attempts to claim its own sanity rather than sand itself down (as an Elia Kazan film would likely do). The whole thing feels like a sidebar excursion into uncharted, possibly disfigured territory. Although Huston directed superior films over the years, perhaps none evokes the spirit of Orson Welles’ famous refrain about a director as a person “presiding over accidents”, or Herzog’s assertion, never more proud of his medium, that cinema “is a medium not for scholars but illiterates”. It’s all about the look.
Extremely fond of the freedom from control (and the often desperate mania, unrestricted anti-propriety, and under-pampered hard-living) wrought by location shooting, Huston stimulates some of his sharpest, craggiest imagery out of the sun-scorched beach town on the west coast of Mexico. The just-past-summer principal photography schedule in 1963 mollifies nothing in a film that bears the sweaty, sultry-nasty heat of the most pulverizing summer months. This is no hermetically sealed, mannered museum exhibit, but a delightfully caricaturized explosion that energizes itself to near-brokenness on the banks of what would soon qualify as exploitation cinema. This is not cinema as a canvas, even a cuckold, for one performance or four (as almost every other Williams adaptation is) but a cinematic workout without equivocation.
All the performances, from Burton’s scruffy internal tornado to the trio of Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner, and Sue Lyon as three temptresses of various shades of liveliness, are all delectably impulsive; like the film, their stylistic spontaneity and scrappiness (deliberately devoid of personal reflection) is ancillary to the primordial battle of policing oneself (or failing to) and giving in to desire that forms the film’s underwire. And although they are within the temptress spectrum, the film burns through our expectations of masculine empathy for the protagonist. Instead, it subcutaneously explores male aggression and the way men tend to self-victimize themselves, the film adopting a skeptical perspective toward Burton as the camera slithers around like a shark (and like him). When Burton says that statutory rape is when a “man is seduced by a girl under 20” rather than framing it in the active sense of “seduces” which would implicate himself, the film cross-questions him, suggestively positioning his lecherous eyes on the hunt for new prey even as he chooses to place the onus on the female.
The question of whether Huston is a true auteur or a studio hand has loomed over the director’s canon like a dog for years, but a work like The Night of the Iguana – firmly a genre piece with no significant conceptual argument to mount but so forcefully evocative nonetheless – lays the groundwork for the lie of that particular “auteur” vs “studio man” dichotomy. Especially because one of Huston’s principal skills was as an adroit organizer of others, prompting such masters as Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa into the best versions of themselves. Here, deep in the throes of blissful chiaroscuro, Huston affords Figueroa the room to full-body the color contrast to stimulate the darkest, most clandestine nights (the kind that conceal the fulfillment of base impulses) and arouse the most brutally parched, sweat-soaked, overlit days (the kind that cling clothes suggestively to bodies, and lay your desires bare for all to see). Secreting a climate of smoldering passion, The Night of the Iguana is an odd mixture of the humble – he was willing to film most anything – and the abidingly personal – an exploitative make-a-buck throwaway wrapped in Huston’s trademark lion’s roar. Maybe this untempered, fanatical feverishness comes at a cost, namely refinement, but when your sweat glands at working double-time to combat the throes of the film’s heat, just try to care.