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Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano
Criterion 410
1984 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 112 min. / Street Date October 23, 2007 / 39.95
Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews, Ignacio López Tarso, Katy Jurado, James Villiers
Cinematography Gabriel Figueroa
Production Design Gunther Gerszo
Art Direction José Rodríguez Granada
Film Editor Roberto Silvi
Original Music Alex North
Written by Guy Gallo from the novel by Malcolm Lowry
Produced by Mortitz Borman, Wieland Schulz-Keil
Directed by John Huston

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Malcolm Lowry's book Under the Volcano had already stymied many efforts at film adaptation when John Huston took it on. According to Todd McCarthy  1, Luis Buñuel, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey and Ken Russell had all expressed interest, and at one time or another Richard Burton, Robert Shaw and Peter O'Toole had pursued the highly desirable lead role. John Huston's very late-career Under the Volcano returns the director to the Mexican setting of his previous Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Night of the Iguana and showcases one of the better male performances of the 1980s in Albert Finney's drunken, self destructive Consul.

Criterion's disc is packed with extras illuminating this often-overlooked gem and its mysterious author, whose 1957 'death by misadventure' may have been a despairing suicide.


Cuernavaca, 1938. Resigned from his post as a British Consul, Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) maintains a seemingly endless drunk, agonizing over the fact that his wife has left him. He disgraces himself at a formal dinner party, accusing a German official (Günter Meisner) of supporting pro-Nazi sinarquista terrorism. The friendly Dr. Vigil (Ignacio López Tarso) pries Geoffrey away before he can start serious trouble. Geoffrey is shocked when his wife arrives the next day. Yvonne Firmin (Jacqueline Bisset) has returned to see if her marriage is salvageable and doesn't try to interfere with her husband's drinking. They join Geoffrey's brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) in a tour of Day of the Dead celebrations, but it becomes clear that Geoffrey cannot handle getting back together again ... he cannot forget Yvonne's earlier infidelity. Geoffrey runs away, forcing Hugh and Yvonne to search bars in nearby towns. But Geoffrey has chosen El farolito, a dangerous lawless place higher up the slope of the volcano Popocapetl.

Books are judged unfilmable when their valued content consists of inner monologues difficult to translate into filmic terms. John Huston's screenwriters can't replicate all of the Consul's interior ravings and instead condense the Consul's barely-controlled delirium into a number of riveting speeches. Geoffrey Firmin's tragedy plays out in a deceptively beautiful Mexican paradise. Behind the jitters of an oncoming war, Fascist sinarquista officials and provocateurs are quietly murdering Communists and Jews. Firmin is too far gone to play a part in any of this; he's bent on alcoholic obliteration.

Under the Volcano straightens Malcolm Lowry's feverish blend of inner torment into a terrific vehicle for Albert Finney, who seems born to play the role. Firmin gives out with half-coherent monologues that verge on poetry. He relates to reality the same way he survives an amusement park ride, staying coherent, if completely scattered, even when his brain is going upside down and sideways. Firmin manages to make sleeping in the middle of the street into a trifling matter when a fellow Englishman (James Villiers) almost runs him over. With money to spend and partially enabled by his brother Hugh, Geoffrey staggers through the days. His ability to function while drunk is a curse, because any ordinary man would be too sickened to keep on destroying himself this way.

Geoffrey has plenty to run away from: a ruined diplomatic career, a guilty incident from the last war and his inability to accept Yvonne's one mistake, even though Geoffrey probably brought it on himself. The film eliminates many details about Yvonne and Hugh. In the book we are informed that Hugh has some plagiarism issues in his past and that Yvonne came from an abusive family. As Yvonne, Bisset suggests depths of involvement that convince us there's much more to the relationship than meets the eye. Hugh's exuberant charm -- guitar serenades, an impromptu bullfighting performance -- never explains why he's hiding out in Mexico caretaking for his out-of-control brother.

The key to everything is in Geoffrey's tortured face. Geoffrey doesn't deny his condition; he'd like nothing better than to reconcile his actions with reality. He's deranged, but not like Peter Lorre in the movie he watches, a madman who cannot differentiate between the object of his affections and a wax statue. Firmin has psychic limits, and although he wallows in self-pity in Yvonne's absence, he cannot trust her when she materializes before his eyes. Rejecting Yvonne means that he must face the yawning Hell before him alone. Huston sets Albert Finney free to carry the entire burden of this dilemma. Finney's face is like rubber, flying from the ecstasy of drinking to the evasive energy of his non-stop bluster. When Yvonne rallies Geoffrey to reclaim his life, his enthusiasm lasts only a few moments. He excuses himself from her bed, saying that being with her is just no good. When cornered by the notion that they could run away and start over, his face seems to implode in a grimace of horror.

Huston bathes Under the Volcano in the Mexican experience, from the magical Day of the Dead graveyard celebration to Geoffrey somehow functioning in the sunny streets and on a requisite Mexican bus ride. When things go bad, Firmin's status as a gringo makes him yet another luckless Fred C. Dobbs. El farolito, the brothel-bar that serves as Geoffrey's last stop is a demonic trap. Its freakish prostitutes and the wicked dwarf whoremaster (Rene Ruiz 'Tun Tun') border on the surreal, with Emilio Fernández himself stomping through carrying his victorious fighting cock. Alcohol can't bring Geoffrey Firmin's death wish to a climax, but blind bigotry and Fascist hatred will do the trick.

Symbols abound in Under the Volcano. Katy Jurado's clueless psychic tells Geoffrey that his wife may come back some day, when Yvonne has actually already returned; the book apparently maintains an ambiguity in which Yvonne's return might be a hallucination. If Huston can be faulted, it's that his gritty style doesn't normally embrace the kind of delirium that's needed. The film's rational surface is unlike Henning Carlsen's similarly themed Hunger, where we can practically smell the starving writer as he drags himself from one illusory experience to the next. Huston instead gives us a local screening of Karl Freund's Mad Love, where a screaming heroine (named Yvonne) recoils from Peter Lorre's uncontrollable passion.

Yvonne follows Geoffrey to the high-mountain cantina, replaying Malcolm Lowry's reference to the legend of Popocapetl. In the legend, the warrior Popocapetl loved the princess Ixtaccihuatl but she killed herself after being told that he died in battle. Popocapetl carried her corpse to the top of a mountain and perished as well. Their prostrate bodies formed the shape of the twin volcanoes.

Only one detail in the film seems false. Are the sleek dark glasses worn by Geoffrey Firmin something that existed in 1938?

Criterion's 2-disc DVD of Under the Volcano gives the colorful film a beautiful enhanced transfer that flatters Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography. Producers Michael Fitzgerald, Wieland Schulz-Keil and Moritz Borman go over the film's long path to the screen on a commentary, sharing segments with screenwriter Guy Gallo and John Huston's son Danny.

Disc two has four definitive extras. Jacqueline Bisset gives a thoughtful, thorough interview on her 'John Huston experience', explaining what it was like to be the sole female on location with Huston's macho crew. Gary Conklin's film Notes from Under the Volcano is a 60-minute compendium of behind-the-scenes material documenting most of the filming. Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry is a fully researched 99-minute study of the noted author narrated by Richard Burton, made eight years before Huston's film. Lowry seems the classic example of the self-destructive author. He created one brilliant work but died wrestling with demons. This docu by Donald Brittain is perfect for the DVD and easily justifies Criterion's higher disc price.

Criterion producer Karen Stetler assembled the exemplary extras. They finish with a 1984 audio interview with John Huston conducted by Michel Ciment. The liner notes were written by Christian Viviani.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Under the Volcano rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with producers and screenwriter, interview with Jacqueline Bisset, audio interview with John Huston, documentaries Notes from Under the Volcano and Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (see above)
Packaging: 2 discs in Keep case
Reviewed: October 10, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.


1. "Cracking the Volcano", Film Comment, August 1984

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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