Film directors

We Interrupt This Program… Confinement and Freedom in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana

SINCE difficulty of communication between individuals seems to be one of the sadder of human misfortunes that Tennessee Williams is writing about in his play, “The Night of the Iguana,” it is ironical that the film John Huston has made from it has difficulty in communicating, too.

At least, it has difficulty in communicating precisely what it is that is so barren and poignant about the people it brings to a tourist hotel run by a sensual American woman on the west coast of Mexico. And because it does have difficulty—because it doesn’t really make you see what is so helpless and hopeless about them—it fails to generate the sympathy and the personal compassion that might make their suffering meaningful.

Bosley Crowther wrote in 1964 after the premiere of Night of the Iguana. John Huston and Tony Veiller adapted the film from Tennessee Williams’ stage play, and today the film airs on TCM as part of Ava Gardner’s Summer Under the Stars Day. This post is proudly part of the SUTS Blogathon, hosted by ScribeHard On Film and Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence, which is basically like Christmas for a whole month. Seriously, last year on Humphrey Bogart’s star day, I walked around the entire day reminding people – strangers, even- that it was Humphrey Bogart Day. (As a small disclaimer, while I love Ava in this movie, I want to focus more on Huston as a director and the techniques he uses in the film. I mean, what more can I say about how beautiful and talented she is and what a great role this was for her? We all know that.)

Night of the Iguana stars Richard Burton as a minister kicked out of the church after inappropriate sexual behavior with a young girl. We next find him giving bus tours in Mexico, particularly to groups of older American women. One group of American women also contains a young girl, who tries to seduce him. After being discovered with the girl in his room, he goes a little crazy, he takes over the bus, drives off course, and maroons the whole group at a remote inn he occasionally stops at for fishing. The inn is run by a boozy American woman, whose older husband is now dead. Ava Gardner plays the American woman in this great loosey-goosey way that goes beyond boozey to be a great character portrayal. Also at the inn are Deborah Kerr, as an uptight woman traveling with her elderly father, who used to be a ‘famous’ poet. That’s about where Crowther and audiences tend to lose the story. Once at the inn,

They talk a great deal on that terrace through the sticky tropical night, and Mr. Huston has made their conversation as nonoppressive as a pacing camera can contrive. But still their suffering and their bleating seem just so much show, so many words.

But who are these dislocated wanderers? From what Freudian cell have they been sprung, and why are they so aggressive in punching their loneliness home to the world? These are the basic revelations that are not communicated by the film, which follows fairly closely the dialogic substance of the play.

I would not be quite so quick to fault Huston and the film medium as the problem. Adaptations of stage plays, particularly of the American playwrights of a certain time (Williams, O’Neill- I’m thinking mostly about Strange Interlude with Clark Gable and Norma Shearer), are not easy to put on the screen. The focus of these types of plays is less about action and more about thoughts and internal struggle. In Night of the Iguana, Huston takes a creative approach to putting internal struggles on screen.. While I agree that the plot loses its way at the inn, and I really can’t summarize what happens in the rest of the story or where the characters end up on their journeys because I’m not sure if anything did happen—I do think Night of the Iguana was styled and filmed in an effort to overcome these challenges. Richard Burton’s character is alternately confined and freed, as representative of his mental state. The way he is filmed gives us clues to what he is thinking and feeling. He is confined in the church and bursts forth; he is confined in the bus and takes it over and drives off to the inn; he is confined in the dining room and rushes outside; he flees his confinement, seeking open spaces. Huston doesn’t need all of Williams’ internal dialogue to convey Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon’s struggles when he has camera angles.

By 1964, Huston was a successful auteur. He began as a writer, and scored his first success as a director with The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett’s story had been filmed before, but Huston felt it had never been properly adapted to the screen (neither previous adaptation did very well); so he didn’t adapt it, he filmed it. The screenplay and the novel are almost identical, with the addition in the film of Huston’s visual sense. Huston was a visual artist and art collector and brought that visual eye to shot composition, light, and contrast beginning with this film. The final scene in The Maltese Falcon brings all of the characters together, and basically, they just talk for fifteen minutes. The film could have completely died, but Huston kept the tension he established in the beginning through shadow, up by creating a feeling of claustrophobia. The shadows of the names “Spade and Archer” and the shadows in the alley where Spade’s partner is killed establish a mood early on of concealment. We see the shadows before we see what they are reflecting. Sometimes all we see are shadows, not the real thing. This uncertainty establishes suspense. Suspense can so easily be broken by the trope in detective stories of the good guy unmasking the bad guy and then the two explaining their motives to each other. What bad guy, once he he has the good guy in his clutches, stops to explain his evil plan? What good guy, once he has foiled the bad guy’s plan, stops to explain exactly how he did it? These are purely theatrical devices used to catch up the audience. Huston recognized that these devices, while they might be necessary to clarify the plot for an audience, were boring. Suspense was broken when mysteries were explained. The scene between Gutman and Spade is a seven-minute take. The fluidity of it keeps the suspense moving forward. Huston famously storyboarded every scene before beginning the filming, and this allowed him to chart and plan the climaxes and keep the suspenseful plot.

The Maltese Falcon was a stunning debut. Today it is hailed as the first film noir. Another Huston film noir was The Asphalt Jungle, which had the same claustrophobic and pressurized suspense-feel. The back rooms, alleys, and the vault are all enclosed spaces, like Spade’s office and apartment. On the other hand, Huston’s The Misfits (1960) features wide, wide open spaces. The sweeping Nevada desert is not only the setting but the theme of the film. The confinement in The Misfits does not come from the camera or the setting, but from the characters. From the horses being captured to Marilyn riding in the car with the men, the characters feel confined within themselves, even in the wide-open space of Nevada they hoped would free them. Eli Wallach’s character is imprisoned by grief, Monty Clift’s by failure, Clark Gable’s by age, and Marilyn’s by loneliness and longing. The genius of the film was the juxtaposition against the sweeping set. Huston, from 1941-1960 had matured as a director and had found success in both visual methods of conveying suspense and claustrophobia, visually.

He did not abandon the more literal confinement of his earlier film noirs in making The Night of the Iguana (what’s more confining than a tour bus full of women singing in the Mexican heat?), but he combined the visual confinement with the portrayed confinement of The Misfits. All of these films were black and white, giving Huston a stark canvas to begin from. The moments of visual confinement in The Night of the Iguana served the same purpose as in The Maltese Falcon—to keep a screen adaptation from losing suspense. The scene in which Charlotte (Sue Lyons) comes to Shannon’s room, we feel just as trapped as he does in the small hotel room. He is twice cornered by her, physically, which makes his burst from the room (and earlier his burst from the church) even more like a gasp of air, as he struggles out of the confinement. The confinement of temptation, if you will. The internal struggle against confinement, as seen earlier in The Misfits, is seen also on the balcony of the inn in Night of the Iguana. Shannon has escaped the church, the bus, his room, and the dining room of the inn, and he sits in the open air on the balcony with Hannah (Deborah Kerr). Their talk turns to sin, morality, and decency. Shannon struggles against himself, to reconcile his desire to return to the ministry against his lust and temptations. “Two unstable conditions can set a whole world on fire, can blow it up past repair,” he philosophizes. Like Gay and Roslyn’s struggle to live full lives in The Misfits, Shannon can best reconcile two opposing ideas (morality vs. lust, confined vs. free) in the open air. He feels confined by the “unstable condition” he is in (forced to leave the ministry, constantly tempted), and flees to the open air of the balcony to find reconciliation.

The inside/outside spaces representing confinement and suspense in Night of the Iguana is recognized by Crowther in his review: “Mr. Huston has made their conversation [on the balcony] as nonoppressive as a pacing camera can contrive,” but ultimately Crowther still faults the film as unclear. Huston’s previous work, The Maltese Falcon and The Misfits shed more light on his closed vs. open spaces technique in filming and attempting to convey Williams’ characters’ internal struggles in Night of the Iguana.

2 thoughts on “We Interrupt This Program… Confinement and Freedom in John Huston’s Night of the Iguana

  1. I find the film problematic because of some of the casting (never been a Sue Lyon fan), and as is usually with the case with an adaptation of a Williams play, I feel the writing does tend to get a little overheated, but I think it’s worth seeing despite its flaws. And you do a good job illustrating what Huston did here as opposed to some of his other films. As for Gardner, she always downplayed her acting ability, but I thought she was the best thing about the movie (next to Burton), and she makes the last scene work like it does. Great write-up!

  2. Pingback: Day 28: Ava Gardner | Sittin on a Backyard Fence

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