The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

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It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“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! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

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What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

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Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

7 Women (1966): John Ford’s Final Film

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7 Women is an oddity that nevertheless deserves a more prominent reputation. Here we have the inauspicious final film of John Ford, becoming the capstone to a career spanning decades and plenty of classics.

However, there’s no John Wayne in this picture nor western panoramas. Still, it sticks with you and delivers a considerable drama chock full of immense potential in such a short span of time.

The story takes place in a Christian mission situated in China near the Mongolia border. The year is 1935. Though the territory has some protection, there is still a world of feudal violence brooding around this stronghold of Christian virtue.

The religious subtext alone has enough thematic intrigue to keep the story continuously compelling. On top of this, you have the rather unusual circumstances (both then and now) of having an entire cast packed with top-tier female performers.

What sets the picture apart is how it becomes a kind of battleground for morality as people of different breeds chafe against each other, further exacerbated by the harrowing backdrop all around them.

Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) runs her compound with puritanical virtue that would be off-putting if there were anyone to stand up against her. Instead, all her cohorts take her pharisee-like fervor benevolently because they share faith in the same God.

Among them is the right-hand Miss Argent always prepared to pay her services.  Sue Lyon is able to subvert her image as a youthful seductress in Lolita for that of an angelic missionary, who is taken under Andrew’s wing. She leads the orphans in renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and is a cloistered young woman of genuine faith.

Eddie Albert feels strangely cast as a teacher — especially since it’s the Green Acres era — but bless his soul, he’s still as wonderful as ever. He could do it all, and he’s the perfect counterpoint to all the women in his stead, including his peckish wife, the pregnant Florrie (Betty Field).

Their lives could very easily continue in relative peace if not for the arrival of a lady doctor named Cartwright (Anne Bancroft as a last-minute replacement for Patricia Neal). It becomes apparent all too quickly she is the utter antithesis of all that Miss Andrews aspires for her immaculate city on a hill to stand for.

They immediately have it out over everything from cigarettes at a dinner table (ironic for a doctor who is supposed to care for the human body) and the liberal use of coarse language unbecoming a woman. They very much represent two distinct worldviews, and they have an impasse. Dr. Cartwright won’t agree to be shipped out; she has a job to look after Florrie’s baby, while her employer isn’t about to let her camp become a house of sin.

Her protests are final, noting the good doctor will never fit into “a Christian community,” and she takes this as a personal affront, asking the impressionable Emma if she wants to live in Dr. Cartwright’s world.

Admittedly, her points aren’t entirely unfounded as their new apothecary proclaims spiritually is dead because she’s never seen God take care of anyone. It’s the pragmatic truth as she sees it but to such an ardent zealot as Miss Andrews, these are blasphemous words.

While Ford never strikes me as a persistently religious figure, he was raised Catholic and his pictures from 3 Godfathers and The Quiet Man to 7 Women do provide portraits of different figures of the faith. This is arguably the most robust conversation, a heavy indictment of holier-than-thou morality versus actual sacrificial lives lived out of love.

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If all this back and forth is playing out in the foreground, the background begins to heat up with word of marauders ravaging the territory.  Miss Andrews’ own hypocrisy is laid to bear when missionaries from differing denominations (among them Anna Lee) are begrudgingly allowed asylum.

At least Dr. Cartwright is a straight shooter. It’s when the real crisis strikes, true character is always revealed. Our suspicions are confirmed as the real heroes come out of the woodwork.

When the compound is overtaken by cholera and drastic measures are in order, the Dr. takes charge for the sake of everyone. Then, the local Chinese garrison flees, leaving them as sitting ducks. It’s inevitable. The feared Warlord Tunga Khan will soon be on their doorstep.

What we don’t know are the results of this impending invasion. To its credit, 7 Women does not spare us from the senseless killing; it is a horrible feeling to know no life is sacred in a film. Those who are spared are locked away to watch the bloodshed.

Mike Mazurski and all his Mongolian cronies are the film’s one obvious blind spot. It’s a moment where the film acts its age. And yet even underneath this apparent flaw, you have this strange counter-story as if in an alternate reality Woody Strode, former UCLA star, is going head to head against Mazursky who was himself a professional wrestler. It’s this weird subtext that’s strangely riveting as they battle for control of this rowdy assemblage of bandits.

With time, Miss Andrews becomes completely unhinged spouting off scripture and losing all pretense of a peaceful, righteous figure. She finally gets put in her place by one of her closest companions. (“What right have you to shout abuse behind our celibate walls”). She sees the Pharisee for who she is.

Again, it is the heathen — the woman of the world — who shows wells of affection when it comes to protecting the weak and the helpless and even those who despise her guts. There is another verse pertinent to her character, redeemed as she is, in her unapologetic profaneness. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The actions are what speak on her behalf.

In her final hour, Ford christens Bancroft with what should be remembered as an iconic doorway shot all her own because she knows what she has done, sacrificing herself for everyone, ready to drink the cup of wrath.

She goes out as fiery as she came in. In fact, Anne Bancroft kills it, despite Ford christening her with the rather unflattering moniker of “The Maid of Monotone.” This movie would lose so much fury without her husky heart and soul at its core.

The 7 Women is a fitting final twist in an illustrious career. In a mountain of westerns revolving around men’s men where only a few sturdy lasses on par with Maureen O’Hara were ever able to break in, Ford goes and makes a film populated with women.

What’s even more rewarding is how much there is to cull through. While it might have unceremoniously become the bookend of Ford’s career, it’s no less of an achievement. Taking stock of everything, it’s a criminally underseen gem that adds yet another compelling contour to the old coot’s already complex career in Hollywood.

Once asked in an interview about his favorite picture of Jean Renoir, Ford always the eloquent elocutionist responded curtly, “I like all of them.” We certainly can attribute this to the usual irascibility of the director, but it seems like a fitting way to consider his own work.

While pictures like Stagecoach and The Searchers get their due, even an offering like 7 Women, seemingly minor, taken as part of a broader career, is still full of Ford himself. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” could not be further from the truth.

With Ford, it’s like each individual picture is giving you another side of him; artistically and thematically he is a part of these movies. The images speak on his behalf. All the better for someone so notoriously difficult to pin down. Look at his films if you want to know the man.

4/5 Stars