Under the Volcano [DVD]
Director : John Huston
Screenplay : Guy Gallo (based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : Albert Finney (Geoffrey Firmin), Jacqueline Bisset (Yvonne Firmin), Anthony Andrews (Hugh Firmin), Ignacio López Tarso (Dr. Vigil), Katy Jurado (Senora Gregoria), James Villiers (Brit), Dawson Bray (Quincey), Carlos Riquelme (Bustamante), Jim McCarthy (Gringo), José René Ruiz (Dwarf)
When we first see British consul Geoffery Firmin (Albert Finney) wandering through a marketplace in Cuernavaca, Mexico, there is no indication that anything is wrong. Dressed in a sharp black tuxedo, his hair immaculately in place, and large, dark sunglasses hiding his eyes, he has the distinguished appearance of someone of great import (or at least great secrecy). But, then we see his feet slide uncomfortably as he walks, and when he reaches down to pet a stray dog, the movement is awkward and a bit stiff. And, when he finally arrives at his destination, a black-tie fundraiser for the Red Cross, he goes straight for the bar and it is downhill from there.
In the simplest terms, John Huston's Under the Volcano is the story of a drunk on the last day of his life. Huston gives us a brief, but crucially symbolic shot in the opening moments in which toy skulls are reflected in Firmin's dark glasses, suggesting that death is not only waiting for him, but already inside him. Given his wardrobe, his well-appointed home, and his former title of British consul, we assume that Firmin was once a great man, or at least one who could better handle his weaknesses. Now, he is the kind of drunk who has so pickled his organs that he can drink straight from the bottle all day and all night and still maintain some semblance of decorum. We never know for sure when or how his slide began, but it is clear once he downs a few too many drinks and commandeers the microphone at the Red Cross dinner to blare an unrequested and incoherent speech that he is at the bottom. And it is at the bottom that he wallows for the rest of the film, stumbling through his final hours while his estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and his adventurous half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), with whom Yvonne once had an affair, try to reconnect with him.
It is a hopeless cause, as Firmin is so deeply ensconced in his alcoholic haze that their breakthroughs to the man inside are at best fragmentary and fleeting. Those dark glasses Firmin dons in the opening scene do more than hide his eyes; they suggest that he is irreparably lost. It is not in any way ironic that the story takes place on November 1, 1938, which is both the Mexican holiday “The Day of the Dead” and the brink of World War II. Portending doom, images of skulls and grim reapers and skeletons abound in the film, as do various shots of the mountainous volcano at the base of which Firmin's sad final hours play out.
Under the Volcano was adapted from the voluminous 1947 novel by Malcolm Lowry, who, like Firmin, was a raging alcoholic. Lowry only published two novels in his lifetime, but Under the Volcano, which draws heavily on his own experiences of being at the pits of alcoholic depression while exiled in Mexico, is considered his masterpiece and one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Legendary director John Huston was in the twilight of his career when he directed the film, making it one his last (his final two projects were 1985's Prizzi's Honor and 1987's The Dead). Huston had always had a penchant for tackling screen adaptations of difficult literary material, and Under the Volcano posed one of his staunches challenges (the novel had long since been declared “unfilmable” due to its intense interiority and flashback structure).
Working with first-time screenwriter Guy Gallo, Huston jettisoned huge chunks of the novel, keeping instead its basic framework and allowing Albert Finney, with whom Huston had worked two years earlier on his film version of the stage musical Annie, to bear the weight of the material. Finney is certainly up to the challenge, and he gives an impressive performance that deftly balances nuance and grandiosity. Firmin is a larger-than-life character--boisterous and uncouth, but also sad and tragic. Finney makes us feel his inebriation as clearly as we sense his inner decay. When he comes alive, it is like the bursts of flame from a dying fire, signaling the inevitable.
In this sense, Under the Volcano should be a powerfully emotional film, and while it frequently is, it is a remote, distanced kind of emotion. The removal of any direct subjectivity keeps up at arm's length from Firmin's emotional time bomb, even with Finney's powerful performance giving us virtually everything we need to know about the demons struggling for his soul. Huston relies heavily on close-ups of his characters, bringing us close to them physically, but not necessarily emotionally. Like those around him, we are constantly pushed away by Firmin's mood swings and drunken rants and self-destructive inclinations, left to ponder how a man with so much could sink so low.
|Under the Volcano Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||October 23, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Under the Volcano, which is making its DVD debut under the Criterion banner, has been given a restored high-definition digital transfer that was taken from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by film editor Roberto Silvi. The image is framed in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which seems to be Criterion's new preference for films that were shown theatrically in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio (a small detail, really, but I still find it odd given that Criterion has stressed for decades the importance of preserving the exact theatrical aspect ratio in home video presentation). For the most part the image is slightly soft, which likely reflects its intended look. Colors look good throughout, and the image is immaculately clean, without any signs of dirt or wear. The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track, sounds excellent. Dialogue is clear and crisp, as is Alex North's often magnificent score.|
|There are three audio commentaries on the first disc, although two of the three are fragmentary. The complete, feature-length commentary features executive producer Michael Fitzgerald and producers Wieland Schulz-Keil and Moritz Borman, while screenwriter Guy Gallo contributes his thoughts on adapting Malcolm Lowry's novel during seven selected scenes (as well as a lengthy audio introduction) and John Huston's son Danny Huston (who sounds quite a bit like his father and does a great impersonation of him) talks over the opening credits, which he directed, as well as the first three minutes of the film. The second disc contains two feature-length documentaries. The first, Notes From “Under the Volcano” (1984), is a 59-minute documentary by Gary Conklin that was shot on the set during the film's production. It's an amazing glimpse into Huston's working methods and what the atmosphere on the set was like. Volcano: An Inquiry Into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, Donald Brittain's 99-minute documentary about novelist Malcolm Lowry, was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar in 1976. Narrated by Richard Burton, it provides crucial background about Lowry's life and draws out the autobiographical connections in Under the Volcano. It is essential viewing for anyone who wants to better understand and appreciate both the novel and the film. There is also a new 18-minute interview with Jacqueline Bisset, a half-hour audio interview with John Huston conducted by French film critic Michel Ciment during the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, and the film's original theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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