Under the Volcano (1984): Albert Finney’s Towering Performance

The 2-Disc Criterion DVD edition of John Huston’s ambitious but not satisfying 1984 “Under the Volcano” contains many extras: A rather candid interview with actress Jacqueline Bisset; a 1984 documentary, “Notes from Under the Volcano,” illuminating commentary from producers Michael Fitzgerald and Weiland Schultz-Keil, and best of all, the 1976 Oscar-nominated docu feature, “Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry.”

Director John Huston and British actor Albert Finney had teamed on two pictures, the musical “Annie” (1982), which was panned by most critics but was nonetheless a box-office hit, and “Under the Volcano” (1984), which sharply divided the critical community and was a commercial flop.

Huston’s long and rich career is marked by many good films, particularly those in which he collaborated with Humphrey Bogart, his favorite actor, such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “The African Queen.” It also includes a dozen of ambitious literary and theatrical adaptation, such as Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” (1964) and Carson McCuller’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1968).

Arguably, “Under the Volcano” belongs to the category of unfilmable novels.  It is positioned in Huston’s oeuvre is positioned with other disappointing renditions, such as “Moby Dick” and “Red Badge of Courage,” even though each of these failed films has some artistic merits.

Malcolm Lowry’s modern-day gothic novel depicts the fevered innermost feelings of a tortured alcoholic consul, played with bravado by Albert Finney in a role that deservedly earned him an Oscar nomination.

When Lowry’s novel “Under the Volcano” was published in 1947, critics called it “one of the century’s towering novels, equal in stature to “Ulysses.” For Lowry, “The novel can be regarded as a kind of symphony, or in another way as a kind of opera. It’s a poem, a song, a tragedy, a comedy. It is superficial and profound, entertaining and boring, according to taste.”

In a letter to his publisher, the author noted that his concern in the book was with “the forces in man that cause him to be terrified of himself.” He claimed he was interested in exploring “the guilt of man, his remorse, his ceaseless struggling toward the light under the weight of his past, and his doom.”
I mention all of that because there’s little evidence of Lowry’s ambitious goals in Huston’s film.

Numerous directors–Luis Bunuel, Ken Russell, Joseph Losey, and others–have tried to translate his intense, difficult novel to the screen to no avail. Huston, who achieved good results with his 1979 movie version of Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” has taken up the risk and challenge. Using a screenplay by Guy Gallo, Huston has decided to focus the drama on the relationship between three characters: the Consul, estranged wife Yvonne, and half-brother Hugh.

Purists of the strange, hallucinatory novel will be disappointed, since as a film, “Under the Volcano” could never match the dense, poetic power of the literary source. For one thing, it’s so concerned with being accurate to the original that it feels too constrained, and ultimately not strong enough to stand as a movie qua movie. Only cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa offers sharp images that suggest in tone and spirit something of what the novel is about.

In a rather straightforward narrative, set just before WWII, Huston tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin (Finney), a disgraced former British diplomat who embraces his own destruction. On the Eve of the Day of the Dead in Cuernavaca, Mexico, circa 1938, the residents are celebrating in picnics in cemeteries over the graves of dead relatives, with colorful costumes and a buoyant carnival spirit. Geoffrey Firmin still yearns for his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who had left him a year earlier. An alcoholic, he has given up on himself and the surrounding world at large. At a Red Cross ball, Geoffrey embarrasses the guests with a drunken speech against the violence that permeates the whole world.

Firmin’s friend Dr. Vigil takes him to church and prays for the return of the Consul’s wife. Surprisingly, Yvonne shows up, claiming she wants to renew their relationship. She had written him many letters, which he has misplaced, but is appalled by his pathetic state. When Geoffrey tries to make love, memories of her adultery with his half-brother Hugh (Andrews) drive him mad.

The Consul talks Yvonne and Hugh, a journalist recently returned from covering the Civil War in Spain, into participating in the festivities. The three take a bus to Tomalin, where a rodeo and bullfight is being held. On the way, they see evidence of violence, which seems to mirror the senseless death occurring in Europe. While Hugh plays matador in the ring, the still loyal Yvonne tries to convince the drunk Consul to leave Mexico with her and begin a new life in Maine or Canada. For a moment, he shares her dream, but then Hugh returns, and Firmin lashes out at them for betraying him.

Visiting “El Farolito,” a sleazy hotel, Firmin discovers the misplaced letters from Yvonne, and reading them, he realizes there is no future for their doomed relationship. After consorting with a prostitute, Firmin is hassled by the fascist secret police.

Scripter Gallo has said that for him, the main story is about the difficulty of loving, and the link between love, responsibility, and history. Huston’s is known for his attraction to charismatic misfits and idiosyncratic men bigger than life, the kinds played by Bogart in “The African Queen” or Sean Connery in ” The Man Who Would Be King.” Thus, the helmer perceives Firmin as an extraordinary man, whose reaction to life is to get drunk in a big, heroic, macho way.

Give credit where it’s due. Huston draws out a towering performance from Finney. As the Consul, he’s a tormented drunkard inwardly oppressed by self-hate and guilt and outwardly disgusted with the evil world around him. Finney, who is sensitive and pathetic, intellectually bright and emotionally scarred, achieves a level of acting that surpasses anything he has done on screen before.

Indeed, the film rests entirely on the astonishing performance from Finney as the dipso diplomat, who slurs sentences, sweats ferociously, wobbles on his pins, playing a man desperate to maintain a sense of dignity and humanity. The last reel, as Firmin sinks deep into his self-created hell, is particularly powerful and often painful to watch.

The beautiful but limited Jacqueline Bisset is out of her league as the painfully helpless Yvonne, a woman who tries to save her man and arrest his descent, but refuses to be dragged down by and with him. Anthony Andrews as Hugh, the earnest English gentleman and stalwart friend, registers better, if his role is too much of a bystander, who hangs around and observes rather than participates in the events.

Even so, at the Cannes Film Fest, where I saw it, “Under the Volcano” stirred as many varied responses as the book, which for some was moral and for others downright religious. The Consul can be seen as a burnt-out hero who says no to the brave new world of betrayal and violence. His life and death can be viewed as a statement about a “no exit” life, both literally and figuratively, about the impossibility of decency and love.