The eponymous reptile is a rather obvious metaphor for characters trapped by quixotic decisions. Regardless of the Rev Dr. T Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) being a defrocked priest, he was always going to lead a dissolute life, alcohol the least of his temptations. This heady drama begins with comedy about a man with ideas above his station ending up as an incompetent tourist guide.
And if his behaviour is not scandalous enough for current coach party, middle-aged Baptist ladies, he leads them to a hotel in Mexico run by former lover Maxine (Ava Gardner) who has two younger lovers on the go. And as is the way with author Tennessee Williams there’s a posse of fascinating characters, led by spinster Hannah (Deborah Kerr) who ekes out an itinerant living selling paintings while her aged grandfather (Cyril Devalanti) recites poetry. Raising the moral stakes is under-age Charlotte (Sue Lyon) who has taken a fancy to Shannon, partly in rebellion against her frosty chaperone Judith (Grayson Hall).
For a movie with no great narrative drive, there’s no shortage of drama, whether it’s the Reverend under constant attack from his charges, Charlotte making advances, Shannon succumbing or trying to fight his addictions, Maxine succumbing then rejecting his advances, and Hannah on the sidelines trying to work out why her entire life has been lived in the shadows.
A simple dramatic fuse has been lit, disparate group with secrets set to explode, and you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Exceptionally daring, even if in discreet fashion, for the time, not just the Lolita-style Charlotte, but the middle-aged Maxine cavorting with not one but two men young enough to be her sons, so effectively a Cougar (before the term was invented) in a threesome, a woman in full command on her sex life not at the whim of a male. There’s as overt a gay woman as you would find in this era. And that’s before we come to Hannah, one of whose two sexual experiences involved averting her eyes while her male companion masturbated on a piece of her clothing. That was taking it way beyond the limits of acceptable on-screen behaviour of the day.
Characters are either engulfed by their passions or weaknesses or trying to come to terms with them, sometimes both. Over everything hangs poignancy at the self-deception practised, redemption scarcely a possibility, communication a minefield, acceptance the best anyone can hope for. Quality acting prevents this disappearing down a sinkhole of self-pity.
Richard Burton (Becket, 1964) was on a roll, one brilliant performance after another either with or without Elizabeth Taylor, essaying a wide range of characters. This is one of his best. You should despise the sham he has become, relying on charm to dig himself out of a hole, relying far too much on the kindness of strangers whose sympathy is exhausted. Yet the loss of the only position, a clergyman, for which he was possibly suited, thrown out for committing unforgiveable sin while preaching sanctity, makes him a very relatable human being. This isn’t Days of Wine and Roses reborn, but someone trying to win the pinch of oxygen required to keep his soul alive, and stir the energy inside. And he would be furious if you ever made the mistake of feeling sorry for him.
Ava Gardner (Mayerling, 1968) is superb, staring age in the face, unrepentant, sex an acceptable substitute for love, underlying sadness admirably restrained. But Deborah Kerr (The Chalk Garden, 1964), brings a refreshing dash to her introspective character, a woman with practical solutions except to her own emotional emptiness. Sue Lyon (Lolita, 1962) is only briefly scandalous and the movie’s conclusion suggests she is capable of settling down and not giving into the base desires that afflict all the others.
Just as with The Misfits (1961), director John Huston allows his characters to breathe. It would have been very easy to allow Shannon to have a more heroic or stoic stature, instead of someone stumbling around. Tinges of comedy and wit lighten the load. Huston and Anthony Veiller (The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963) wrote the screenplay from the Tennessee Williams play.