The Night of the Iguana ★★★★★

Watched as part of the February 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#22: Pick a director that has made films over 20 years. Pick a movie made in first half of their career

2017 movie viewings, #65. I mentioned yesterday how I'm on a major Tennessee Williams kick for the first time in my life right now; and that's going to lead to a lot of reviews here over the next month, in that it seems that anytime a Hollywood producer wanted to assure critical accolades for their Oscarbait black-and-white picture in the 1950s or '60s, they could always reliably turn to one of the endless plays that Williams cranked out once a year like clockwork in those days. (Already reviewed: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire; still to come, The Glass Menagerie, Baby Doll, Suddenly Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth, This Property is Condemned, The Fugitive Kind, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Ten Blocks on the Camino Royale, and The Rose Tattoo, and this isn't even counting the movies that never got re-released on DVD.)

Today's 1964 film, a mid-career title by director John Huston that largely now gets overlooked in retrospectives of his work, is a bit of an outlier in terms of the infamous list of Tennessee Williams Cliches™ that pepper so much of his work -- it's actually set in Mexico (in fact, it's the movie that single-handedly established Puerto Vallarta as a Mexican tourist destination), features a main character who's a defrocked Catholic priest (Richard Burton at his hammy, overacting best, a fact you can state about a lot of actors when they're appearing in Williams productions), and there isn't even a single repressed homosexual or wilted Southern belle in sight. In other ways, though, the movie features all kinds of Williams Cliches anyway: defrocked for having a lecherous sexual affair with an underaged Sunday School teacher (ding!), and then delivering an outrageously over-the-top sermon about the death of God to his unforgiving parishioners (ding!), Burton's Doctor T. Lawrence Shannon is now a hard-drinking (ding!) tour guide for a fly-by-night Mexican bus-based tourist company, one that specializes in group outings for gaggles of prim, mostly elderly church women back in the US. It's while on the latest of these tours that Shannon has to fend off the advances of an insanely good-looking teenage girl who uses her budding sexuality as a way of empowering the parts of her life disenfranchised by the clucking hens who surround her (ding! ding! ding!); and this puts him in the crosshairs of the uptight, overbearing, elderly shrew (DING! DING! DING!) who's in charge of chaperoning the oversexed teen, as the two devolve into greater and greater conflict while the bus tour rapidly falls into chaos about halfway through, eventually causing Shannon to question his entire existence (ding!) while in the middle of a nighttime thunderstorm (ring-a-freaking-ding!).

Now add Shannon's ex-lover (Ava Gardner in her career-best), owner of a rundown resort that's currently closed for the off-season (the location where the entire stage-play version takes place), but who Shannon convinces to open for a weekend so he can keep the shrew away from the modern telephones at the resort they're supposed to stay at; and you've got yourself two hours of ludicrously darkly humorous fun, and high melodrama at its classically defined finest. This is all enhanced, then, by a series of unconventional shots that Huston inserts into the movie, simply because it's the 1960s and he can (the opening credits are especially forward-looking); and finally the whole thing is enhanced by an understanding of the real-life drama that was taking place during the film's shooting schedule. (Actually shot in Puerto Vallarta, back when it was a sleepy fishing village with no modern amenities, the cast and crew were essentially cut off from the outside world the entire time they were making the movie; and this just happened to be during the period after Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had become illicit lovers, but before they had left their spouses and made the relationship public and official, which in the paparazzi-free environment apparently meant that the two were making love all day every day, over every available surface inch of the Mexican landscape.) It's far from a "typical" Tennessee Williams movie, and it shouldn't be used to get an overview of what he's like as a playwright; but it might be Williams' most fun and interesting script of his career, a great title to double-feature with The Last Picture Show if you want to see the kinds of envelope-pushing things Mid-Century Modernist intellectuals were doing in the mid-'60s that directly led to the Postmodernist era just a few years later.

Coming tomorrow, my look at The Glass Menagerie, the very first movie made out of a Tennessee Williams play, and the one that established so many of the tropes that came over and over afterwards.

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