“A man with a long floating beard, riding a bat, drinking Mescal, circling the world, drunk, disillusioned at what he’s created”.
—Director John Huston on his concept of “God”
Often in filmmaking we talk about the chemistry between actors and directors. In Under the Volcano, the filmed adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s novel, we get a sense of a bygone era where directors and stars truly search for depth and honesty. It is a rare occurrence to see two masters such as Albert Finney and John Huston working together (the two had previously collaborated on Annie, of all things!). Even rarer is the true quality of the work. Both men were on a hot streak in the ‘80s.
Finney (who had some brilliant moments in the ‘80s with Shoot the Moon and The Dresser), is featured here playing the often incomprehensibly drunk diplomat Geoffrey Firmin. Director Huston, in the twilight of his life and his filmmaking career, always had a way with the exotic, intimate epic—for proof of this just see The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison or anything in between!
Here, the great director’s mise en scene recalls the decrepit 1930s photojournalism of French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson with earthy images of rural Mexican prostitutes, the crumbling white clay buildings with flimsy shutters, and the dirty back roads. The ramshackle poverty adjacent to the wealthy white man’s raunchiness and excess provides a stark, bleak starting point and highlight a tightly-wound feeling of menace that penetrates each scene.
Huston had a knack for, among other things, showcasing the spirit of adventure and exploration of other cultures as though he were part anthropologist, part literary enthusiast, and part filmmaker. Finney’s fearlessness in his career can be seen as a sort of kindred spirit to the director’s. The marriage of actor and director on Under the Volcano is one of the most important for both men’s careers, one that shows them both at their most intoxicatingly charismatic and daring. This is the kind of rock-steady filmmaking that rarely happens today. It is pure, Golden Age Hollywood movie making and story-telling at its most honeyed and deliberate. The actors are photographed like stars. There are no flashy graphics. Some might call this sort of film “boring”, but really it is a beautiful example of a kind of filmmaking that has unfortunately become passé.
The craftsmanship of Huston’s films remains unparalleled. Beginning with a stunning “Day of the Dead” title sequence (shot by the director’s son Danny Huston), Under the Volcano unfolds with haunting imagery that foreshadows what will happen by the end with a relentless, almost clinical detachment. The skulls reflecting across Geoffrey’s dark sunglasses echo the film’s dark sensibilities, and lend an otherworldly air to what is essentially a canny peek inside the reality of an alcoholic’s sad, final day. Huston’s brilliant juxtaposition of an over-privileged white man with the exotic locale he is trapped in became one of the director’s specialties – perhaps one he identified with traveling the world for many years making films, and keeping a residence in Mexico.
Geoffrey is a complete drunk. He can barely walk most of the time. He can’t really compose a proper sentence. One wonders how he can fulfill his work obligations. He has moments of lucidity mixed with moments of embarrassment. It is, for anyone who has ever known an alcoholic, one of the most carefully captured portraits of the disease on film.
There is a canny scene where Geoffrey lays down on a bed with his ex-wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset, at her most gracious and clever) and begins reminiscing about old times. It quickly turns into a hackneyed romantic scene in which he pleads for her to come back to him, despite being barely able to control himself. It is a sad, pathetic attempt by a desperate man to regain some sort of control over his life, and both actors endow their characters with the utmost humanity and realism, especially after Geoffrey promises (in vain) to stop drinking. Yvonne has heard all of this before, and knows it is a lie. In the same scene, to his own horror, Geoffrey’s drinking has rendered him impotent. The emotional scope of the scene is forceful. The players are forced to explore an entire life’s history in the span of a few moments, both are wildly successful.
In another scene later in the film, Geoffrey’s sexuality again figures prominently. This time, the emotional impotence of this middle-aged man is shown to be even more pathetic than his surmised sexual impotence when he cavorts with a hooker with venereal disease at a dangerous local brothel. He is so ashamed of himself for being such an abhorrent drunk that he can’t make love to the woman he actually loves, he must sleep with a stranger. Geoffrey is in another world. His attempts at connection are hopeless and hard to watch.
The beauty of these scenes comes from something that permeates the entire film: subtlety. Just when you think Finney might be in danger of becoming a ham, there is a dissonant moment like this scene of sexual humiliation that snaps the character back to a place of empathy and pathos. Finney grounds Geoffrey expertly, making him neither a buffoon nor a saint. In the hands of the actor, the character reaches positively Shakespearean heights of gravitas.
Unpredictable one second, wounded and timid the next, Finney is unafraid to explore the darkest recesses of a sick man. With Yvonne, he can be monstrous and ruthless. In another emotional centerpiece for the film, the relationship between Geoffrey and his ex-wife is again scrutinized when Yvonne weeps to him that she’s “come crawling back. Let me be your wife”. He rebuffs her in an alcoholic haze, musing “when has she ever been a wife to me? Where are the children I might have had?”
The scene provides a devastating burst of nuance to the Firmin’s bruised history, but it also cuts to the core of the cruel nature of an addict who can be your best friend one second, and the next your worst enemy. The torturous scene is the beginning of a sordid, mournful denouement for the characters and for the film.
In the final scenes (set in the aforementioned seedy bar), are terrifying as Geoffrey is shown drinking himself into a stupor and a downward spiral is looming as local hooligans begin to demand money from him for a cache of letters they have stolen. He confronts the men (it is whispered they are somehow in cahoots with Nazis) about the murder of an indigenous man, shooting his mouth off with reckless abandon. The climax is definitely a worst case scenario that was expertly foreshadowed by the skeleton imagery placed carefully throughout the film and Huston does not shy away from giving his viewers a taste of bitterness and an anti-Hollywood ending.
So much has been written about Criterion’s extras and their way of packaging their collector’s titles. The famed company’s luxurious artwork and their dedication to filling each release’s extras quota to the brim is renowned, and Under the Volcano is no exception. In fact, with their most recent releases, the company has been challenging (and surpassing) its own standard of excellence with even more beautifully designed art. The recent House of Games, Days of Heaven, and now this release offer further evidence of the company’s dedication to cinematic distinction. Criterion deserves every accolade and every word of praise – they are continually upping the ante and fulfilling the dreams of film nerds like me the world over.
Volcano’s extras disc features several new interviews and documentaries, as well as commentaries by producers and son Danny (who called working with his dad “like working with God”). The restored print is another feather in Criterion’s cap: the crisp and gorgeous transfer was supervised by the film’s original editor, Roberto Silvi. Also included is an Academy Award nominated 99 minute documentary called Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976), and an hour long behind the scenes look at the production that was presciently filmed on location in 1984, before the advent of DVD extras.
Huston, if one was to believe the stories that circulated about him, possessed a certain mystique. People often out and out deify him. On the very telling extra, he appears warm, spirited and engaging, hopefully humanizing him and debunking the myths. This is an essential peek that is missing from many films made during this period that illuminates not only the director’s process, but also provides a little insight into his immediate crew and how they operated on location in Mexico. Most were veterans of other Huston projects, which is in keeping with the feelings of intimacy and familial leanings of the director.
The director bookends his film with death. Given his age and outsider status in Hollywood at the time, this detail provides the viewer with a key entry point into the mind of one of the most prolific important directors of all time. He was staring death in the eye and was brave enough to show the audience what he saw reflected back.
There is a fearless sense of discovery in Huston’s later films, particularly in 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor and his final film, 1987’s adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. Huston’s affinity for challenging source material is crystal clear, but in talking about discovery, I think a major factor to consider with a great like this (who was making expert films in the ‘40s) is the grace with which he was able to navigate so many decades of changing tastes and technologies, while always retaining a singular perspective.
In all of his films, there is a definite “Hustonian” sensibility, but Under the Volcano is a testament to the director’s own adaptability and artfulness in an industry that doesn’t always trade in art. Under the Volcano is Golden Age craftsmanship at its peak with a decidedly modern edge that shows, again, that the vintage director’s eye is one that often improves with age.