Richard Burton

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.

An Epic New Series

The definition of an “epic” film is one with a large, sweeping scope, depicting a historical (or mythical) event. It is bigger than a period piece, and sets the story of a hero against the historical backdrop. Critic Tim Dirks describes the recipe for an epic: “extravagant setting and lavish costumes, accompanied by grandeur and spectacle…They are expensive and lavish to produce, because they require elaborate and panoramic settings, on-location filming, authentic period costumes, inflated action on a massive scale and large casts of characters.” Within the epic genre, there are sub-genres. The Roman epic, such as Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 Cleopatra or the Russell Crowe Gladiator; Greek Classical epic, such as 1980’s Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts (I believe the expression that applies would be “special effects FTW”); the Biblical epic, one of the most popular sub-genres, including Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments; and the American Western epic, such as Cimarron and the aptly-titled, Giant. Not to mention biographical epics (both modern such as 1992′s Chaplin and older, 1936′s The Story of Louis Pasteur), with a sub-genre of a sub-genre in royal biographical epics, war epics (from the Civil War to WWII), adaptations of Russian novel epics, Merchant-Ivory adaptations of E.M. Forster novel epics, and countless others. Dirks also lists Star Wars (science fiction epic?), Apocalypse Now, Titanic (ship/sea/disaster epic?), Schindler’s List, and The Birth of a Nation (original!). I believe another qualification of an epic is sheer length. Cleopatra clocks in at over four hours. Spoiler, but Rex Harrison dies at hour two, and it kind of goes downhill from there. With the re-release of Titanic into theatres this past spring, there was a flurry of online activity of people wanting to know if the film had been cut, or if it was possible to sneak in to the theatre to only catch the second half, when the ship starts sinking. The action in an epic has a certain ebb and flow, and a good epic recognizes its own episodic nature (think early picaresque novels like Don Juan) and structures the plot accordingly.


“Epic” in slang terms, has also come to mean something wonderfully larger than life. An “epic” party is the best party anyone has ever given. An “epic” blog post is the most brilliant piece of literature anyone has ever composed. “Epic” in its true film sense can also be placed under this new slang version, at least in intention. Studios made epics and spent massive amounts of money and time in order to make more money than anyone had ever made off of one film. Box office records alone have been set and broken on epics from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to Titanic, not to mention licensing fees, royalties, and hundreds of other fees Hollywood is still collecting. The “summer blockbuster” is technically a sub-genre of the epic, although the content is much looser. The first summer blockbusters were epics. Epics had the biggest stars, the best costumes, the newest technology. They also had the biggest hype. Gone with the Wind is the prime example. After conducting a nation-wide search for Scarlett O’Hara, that included one hopeful popping out of a cardboard box wearing a full 1860’s hoop skirt on producer David O. Selznick’s doorstep on Christmas Day, Selznick also burned down old sets on a backlot in a highly-publicized, invitation-only event. Everything about an epic from start to finish is larger than life. Sometimes larger than folklore.

Cleopatra will go down in history not as a milestone in cinematic history, but as a milestone in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s controversial and public love affair. Taylor was married at the time, and her husband was so irate with the reports he was receiving from the set, that he arrived in Europe to keep an eye on her. Too late. Taylor and Burton were married a few years later, divorced, and married again. Their sizzling scenes in Cleopatra are the focus for movie historians now, as the beginning of their affair, rather than because they are cinematic masterpieces. Ancient Rome or Greece were especially titillating settings because of the lush surroundings and risqué costumes. A producer could get away with Elizabeth Taylor in a bikini because it was “historical.” The sensual surroundings of the Roman stories combined with the real-life drama of the stars to create irresistible movie-going. The private lives of the stars were almost as epic, if not more so, than the films themselves. Spartacus, Kirk Douglas’s Roman epic, was made as a backlash against Charlton Heston’s more popular Ben-Hur. Douglas apparently was not pleased that less experienced Heston had gotten the coveted role in Ben-Hur, and even more displeased with his success, Academy acknowledgement, and instant fame, Douglas made Spartacus the very next year. Spartacus is startlingly similar to Ben-Hur, but Douglas’s performance is most definitely infused with an element of revenge. Sometimes he’s got this look in his eye like he really will kill someone. The tension between the two films and between Douglas and Hollywood, where he felt underappreciated and as if he had to prove himself time and again, fueled gossip and ticket sales. Ben-Hur is more well-known as a film, but who hasn’t heard the “I am Spartacus!” line that Tony Curtis utters parodied in some way?

Often, epics were based on books. During the Studio Era, producers were always reading new books and scouring classic literature for stories that would translate to film. Selznick was famed for his adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, minor epics, but stepping stones on Selznick’s path to Gone with the Wind, another novel adaptation. Dickens was a favorite, as Shakespeare always will be (from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet to Julie Taymor’s Titus). Greek and Roman myths and stories of Olympus or of emperors were popular. In the silent era, the Middle East was an area of fascination (The Sheik). America’s cannon was not as developed as the English or European cannon in literature at that time, but new fiction, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, were sought after instead. Galley proofs of new novels circulated within a studio. Rebecca was a new novel when Hitchcock picked it up in order to translate it to film. Early American authors didn’t translate especially well to film (although The Scarlet Letter was and continues to be attempted), but the newer works of Hemingway and his contemporaries did. Edna Ferber was an author and playwright who was most decidedly an American writer. Two of her novels, Cimarron and Giant, depicting the American West, were turned in to epics. The American West, its own genre of film, not to mention a complete sub-genre within epics, was a special area of interest in Hollywood. Stories about English mansions or Roman emperors were all well and good, but the American public wanted to see the American spirit. Novelists like Ferber were sought-after. Red River, one of the first “Westerns” is a small epic, but a clear forbearer of Giant. This “go West young man” spirit and interest, combined with lack of classical American literature, combined with the epic power and desire to make money, birthed the Western Epic.

Epics are sort of the annoyingly pretentious sibling of film genres. In my next series, I’ll look at a few epics , that seem especially pretentious or tiresome. Let me say- I do not love all epics equally. It’s not necessarily related to taste, either. My shelves hold at least 5 DVD sets of epics I started but couldn’t finish. The quaint costume drama Around the World in Eighty Days2001: A Space Odyssey (oh Stanley Kubrick, how wrong you can go and oh how right), Dr. Zhivago (which is a bit odd because I watched War and Peace starring Audrey Hepburn in one sitting), and more. My parents still have Ben-Hur on VHS, with the intermission music and titles, which I love. Ben-Hur was probably my first epic, and I do love it. Other “sword and sandal” epics like  Cleopatra don’t thrill me as much. But, all this to say, epics are a genre like any other: with both thinkers and stinkers alike, all examined herein.

One of the key components of epics I haven’t mentioned yet is locale. This series is published in conjunction with ALL GOOD THINGS‘ 2012 Cinematic World Tour Blogathon. In this series I’m traveling through time and space, to the most beautiful, exotic, and distinct locations: what better way to take a trip? Be sure to check out the other posts, linked over at ALL GOOD THINGS. Thanks for hosting!