Film Reviews

Under the Volcano John Huston

Rating - 7/10

 “If I can’t go to Ireland then I go down to Mexico, anywhere where I’m away from telephones. I’m a very weak character and I yield to any temptations that might present themselves.” (John Huston) 

American director John Huston was particularly fond of Mexico. A frequent visitor to the Latin American country, Huston shot three films in Mexico during his long career: Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); Night of the Iguana (1964); and Under the Volcano (1984). The latter film, an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s sprawling semi-autobiographical, stream-of-consciousness cult novel, incorporated several of Huston’s thematic and personal interests including the corruption of man, the ill-effects of obsession, the lower depths of humanity and the utilization of literary source material.

Under the Volcano stars Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin, a former British Consul who spends every waking moment tethered to a bottle of booze. Divorced and with only a few friends, Geoffrey’s daily routine is structured around the never-ending consumption of alcohol. After giving an embarrassing impromptu speech at a formal dinner, Geoffrey is walked by a friend to a local church, where he prays for the return of his estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset).
The next day, Yvonne and Geoffrey’s journalist half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) inexplicably return from their respective absences abroad. Ironically, the pair returns on the Day of the Dead: a day when death is celebrated rather than mourned by the local population. Lost in an alcoholic haze, Geoffrey suggests the trio go into town to celebrate the festivities. Yet, the spectre of the event advances, rather than encumbers Geoffrey’s descent into a physical and spiritual Hell.
Filled with abstractions and flashbacks, Under the Volcano was long considered to be a practically unfilmable work; rejected by a who’s who of directors including Luis Buñuel, Ken Russell, Joseph Losey and Jules Dassin. Nonetheless, Huston who had previously adapted the works of Tennessee Williams, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Crane and Herman Melville to the screen, was certainly unfazed by such logistical challenges. In order to simplify Lowry’s novel, Huston dispensed with much of Lowry’s original symbolism, metaphysical inquiries and literary structure. In its place, Huston emphasized Geoffrey’s struggles with alcoholism through a linear narrative framework.
Huston’s artistic decisions arguably both benefit and hinder the film. The director’s straightforward approach and simplification of Lowry’s story makes Geoffrey’s alcoholism its focal point. But in doing so, Huston also denies the film much of the original ambiguity and context found in the source material. For instance, Huston’s frank presentation of Yvonne countermands the phantasmagorical qualities imbued to her in Lowry’s book. Huston also minimized or removed much of Lowry’s hallucinatory and quasi-spiritual content: a particularly strange decision given Under the Volcano’s Day of the Dead setting.
Instead the famed director centered the film on the unpleasant downfall of Geoffrey Firmin and the inability of those around him to rescue the former diplomat from his fate. The film thus becomes an encapsulation of his final twenty-four hours, as he flits from one drunken stupor to the next. Eloquently attired and well-spoken, Geoffrey is a man who has long given up trying to fight his demons. Over the course of the film, Huston accentuates Geoffrey’s metaphoric relation to the nearby volcano: both being susceptible to erupt with violent and tragic repercussions at any moment.
Aside from a few scenes detailing Geoffrey’s service during the First World War, Huston primarily withholds any information offering a cause to Geoffrey’s troubles. Tellingly, there are no solutions either. Accordingly, Under the Volcano is a visual entry in the diary of a madman. Like Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Richard Burton’s T. Lawrence Shannon in Night of the Iguana before him, Geoffrey Firmin represents the archetypal morally depraved Hustonian anti-hero: a man who has been corrupted by vice or obsession and is henceforth suffering for his sins.
Unlike Richard Burton’s character in Night of the Iguana, there is little final redemption for such torture in Under the Volcano. Nor is the audience offered a subjective insight into Geoffrey’s plight. By the time Geoffrey recoils to the darkness at a bar-cum-whorehouse ironically named El Farolito (The Little Lighthouse), the character’s connection to the audience feels mostly distant and unfulfilled.
Huston’s attraction to the ugliness of man permeates throughout Under the Volcano with Albert Finney being the principal host of Huston’s inquiries. It is in Finney that Under the Volcano’s aspirations and intentions reside. His expressive performance is probably the film’s highlight, even if it is mildly over-the-top. Slurring, staggering and often the projector of incoherent, jumbled dialogue, Finney manages to capture both Geoffrey’s demons and his ebullient personality. Regrettably, the film’s secondary characters Bisset’s Yvonne and Andrews’ Hugh are barely sketched figures, who offer scant multi-faceted responses to Geoffrey’s larger-than-life persona.
Fittingly given his love of the country, Huston’s portrayal of rural Mexico becomes one of the film’s strongest assets. Acclaimed Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who also provided the gorgeous monochrome visuals for Huston’s Night of the Iguana, captures the vivid local color and grotesque carnival imagery of the authentic Cuernavaca locations through a vibrant palette.
While not one of Huston’s greatest films, the flawed personal project Under the Volcano is one of the legendary director’s darkest efforts. Hinged almost entirely on Albert Finney’s dizzying performance, Under the Volcano is a perplexing work that arguably fails to translate the multi-faceted approach of Lowry’s novel, nor wholly escape being viewed by its critics as simply being a forum for Albert Finney’s rambling, drunken monologues.