I probably knew more about what went on behind the scenes of this John Huston production then anything that actually happened in the film. Therefore I thought it was about time I corrected that and watched it for the first time and immediately began wondering why the hell it took me so long to finally do just that. Truthfully I probably ignored it growing up because it wasn’t a Huston-Bogart teaming and plays by Tennessee Williams didn’t exactly excite youngsters looking for Huston adventures like The Man Who Would Be King or Heaven Knows Mr. Allison.
Of course I’ve read many chapters on the making of the film thanks to reading up on Huston and stars of the film Richard Burton and by extension Elizabeth Taylor who was on set for the filming, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Having them on set seems an explosive foursome though Liz isn’t in the film itself. With or without Liz, this is indeed a risqué release for the era and far better than most any Burton-Taylor pairings. Virginia Woolf the one exception you may choose to argue.
Surrounded by a bevy of female stars that also includes Lolita herself, Sue Lyon, Burton plays a Man of the Cloth who has lost his composure in the pulpit and by extension his flock. In the opening scene, his congregation desert him and the church leading him to be defrocked. As we will soon see, the sins of the flesh are his downfall. The film moves forward to Burton working as a tour guide south of the border in Mexico where he is currently squiring a group of retired women about the countryside. Along for the trip is the young and sexy Miss Lyon with her governess, Grayson Hall. Hall more or less plays the villain of our narrative and will make life a living hell for Burton who discovers he has an overheated admirer in Lyon.
Those sins of the flesh might be coming back to haunt/taunt him.
It’s while trying to keep the vindictive Hall from reaching his employer that Burton takes the group to a second rate hotel in a secluded part of Mexico overseen by Ava Gardner. Let it be said right here and now that I’ve never found Ava more sexy and playful than she is here as a widow who has taken over the hotel once run by her much older husband. Like Burton, Ava delivers an Oscar worthy performance under Huston’s direction. It’s also here that Deborah Kerr with her Grandfather in tow will seek shelter claiming they are penniless. Ava isn’t to be fooled and easily reads the con that Kerr and granddad are usually playing on unsuspecting tourists.
No I haven’t read the play by Tennessee Williams that Huston adapted for the screen. I would surmise that plenty of it has been toned down for the movie going public of 1964. Still this one pushes the boundaries of acceptable entertainment and is nothing like one might see in Mayberry or any number of TV shows of the period. References to sex flow freely as does the availability of marijuana to those who may wish to smoke it in the film.
While Burton may be fighting the sins of the flesh, one can easily see why. Miss Lyon is filmed seductively throughout by Huston and those short shorts aren’t doing Burton any favors. Ava has her own demons as well. The script brazenly makes it known that she engages in three way sexcapades with two much younger men. Kerr too will talk of her own sexual misadventures to Minister Burton while he fights another battle with the bottle. Something I suspect Burton was known to do with regularity off camera.
While the script pushes the envelope for a mainstream film, there are still plenty of ingenious ways of getting taboo subjects into the film with smart writing. Lesbianism is hinted at when Ava makes it plain just why Miss Hall has her daggers pointed at Burton and the final lines of the film from Ava regarding Burton are a classic example of the double entendre.
This proved to be a highly entertaining film aside from Hall who’s performance I felt hasn’t aged all that well though that isn’t necessarily fair to her. After all it’s her performance as the villain that scored an Oscar nomination while none of the other leads did. A film like this one reminds me that we/I don’t always need action, car chases and shootouts to be entertained. The lead actors here scored a bullseye in keeping me enthralled to the fade out. Kerr was wonderfully mousey, Lyon a dangerous temptress, Burton on edge and just dynamic and then there’s Ava who had me wishing I could stay at her coastal resort just to be close to her.
Should you pick up a copy of the DVD that was released a few years previously, there are some great bonus materials included of John Huston and the cast on set talking of the production and what they were aiming for with the film. Adult material done right and a production that still holds up well overall.