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Under the Volcano (1984) – Criterion Collection DVD Review

Under the Volcano: Criterion Collection: DVD cover art


Written by: Guy Gallo, based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry
Directed by: John Huston
Starring: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews, Ignacio López Tarso, Katy Jurado


  • Running audio commentary with executive producer Michael Fitzgerald and producers Wieland Schulz-Keil and Moritz Borman
  • Select scene commentary with scribe Gallo
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Video interview with Bisset
  • 1984 audio interview with director Huston conducted by French film critic Michel Ciment
  • Behind the scenes footage
  • Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry
  • Essay by film critic Christian Viviani

Released by: Criterion Collection
Region: 1
Rating: R.
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Buy it for Finney and for Criterion.

[ad#longpost]Geoffrey Firmin (Finney) is a former British consul in Mexico, in the liminal void between World Wars I and II. He’s a former consul because he’s not pleased with the state of politics as they are, and because he knows that another big storm is coming. Also, the fact that he’s a blistering alcoholic couldn’t have helped things. Everyone else knows what’s wrong with the world as well but chooses to feign ignorance, which has gotten Geoffrey disgusted–thus, he quit. Or was encouraged to quit, one or the other. Also not helping matters is the fact his wife Yvonne (Bisset) has run off and then divorced him. This after she had a fling with his half-brother, Hugh (Andrews). Geoffrey wants her back and is dying without her, drowning himself in heroic doses of alcohol. Trouble is, can he survive even if she returns?

I’ve talked about this before: tragedy is hard. There’s a fine line between “Hamlet the tragic hero” and “Hamlet the procrastinating goofbag who brought it all on himself.” Tragedy happens, usually, because people make bad choices. And we can either empathize with our tragic hero or we can think he’s a doofus. And the problem with this film is not that I think Geoffrey is a doofus (because it’s really hard to have the words “Albert Finney” and “doofus” correlate) but I just don’t understand why the character makes the decisions he does. And even when you accept the inexorable conclusion and think, okay, fine, go that way then, then there’s a little added bonus conclusion at the end that just makes it all feel…just very unsatisfying.

From watching this Criterion release (since Criterion, among its other strengths, gives films excellent context), I’ve been able to glean what I think–think–might be the problem. The film is based on a novel by Malcolm Lowry, and the word that everyone also uses in association with the novel is “unfilmable.” I’ve not read the book myself, but from the discussions present on the Criterion set here, I get the feeling it’s huge, chocked full of flashback and abstraction and metaphor. Huston set out to make a film that’s very, very concrete, just dealing with the who, what, when, etc. From what I understand, it’s comparable to the film they made of Joyce’s Ulysses…it’s not a bad film, just missing an awful lot of what made the book so special. When I find, listening to the bonus bits, that the love triangle was originally a love quadrangle and they struck a fourth member…that gives me some pause. And my theory is that in what’s missing is what would have given me the information I needed. And the context I needed.

Albert Finney from Under the Volcano
Mt. Finney, about to explode

Granted, what Huston says (I believe in the audio interview) is that he wanted to have all of those abstractions in the film, but just as part of the performances. I don’t think it translated. Not to downplay the fact that the character is a serious–and I mean serious–alcoholic, but between that, his wife, and an incident that may or may not have occurred during the War (it’s left nebulous as to whether or not that story is true), I just don’t get why he chooses the path that leads to the film’s end. Sorry, but that’s just me. I’m almost wondering, since everybody involved with the film seems to have read the book at the time, if they were so used to the ideas they simply took them as granted, thus leaving people less familiar with the source material out in the cold.

That being said, the film itself is remarkable because Finney is remarkable. He is the volcano of the title. He roars, he laughs, he explodes, he chews the exquisite scenery when such activity is called for and he does all of it extremely well because he’s Albert Goddamn Finney. The one drawback to this is that the other actors are truly living “under the volcano.” Bisset isn’t given much to do other than react to Finney, and Andrews is given even less to do and (at least from the comments throughout the two-disc set) everyone feels like he got the short end of the stick on that. Huston’s style is evident as laid out by the participants in the commentary and the interview: he makes you forget the camera is there. There’s no overdeveloped style that says “Cinema-cinema-cinema.” It feels very natural.

Jacqueline Bisset interview from Under the Volcano
Jacqueline Bisset talks Under the Volcano

Because this is a Criterion set, it takes even this flawed film and wraps it in everything you would ever want to know about it. The commentary from the two producers gives you what you want: backstory on how the film came to be (in this case, just acquiring the rights to the book was a story all by itself), information on the various attempts that had been made to film it before, and what it was like to work on the film itself. Insight is given into everything from choices to play Geoffrey besides Finney (Richard Burton was mentioned at one point) to Huston’s directing style to the care that went into creating the sets and details that either Finney would chew or Huston would not focus on. Good stuff.

There’s also two other partial commentaries. The first is scene specific from Guy Gallo, the screenwriter. He at first gives a brief rundown on his his script was selected out of the umpteen different versions that had been written down through the years, and his experience working with Huston. This in itself is worth the price of admission, especially how Huston would drive you to do better–even and especially, apparently, in ways that would just flat piss you off. There’s also a brief commentary by Danny Huston where he discusses shooting the opening credits–a task given to him by his father. This is an interesting short bit but it’s for the best that it cuts off there–when the movie starts up, he appears to switch into “Commentary for the Blind” mode.

John Huston interview DVD screen from Under the Volcano

The new interview with Bisset is nice, in that she’s very candid about the experience, echoing many of the things I’ve already mentioned, like Andrews getting shafted. The other thing I’ll mention here is something that also came up in the main commentary: one would get the impression that Huston basically cast the actors and then had maybe a conversation (or two) with them, but otherwise sat back and just watched the magic happen. I’ll touch upon that more in a minute. But the Bisset interview has everything you would want from a commentary with her, so points go there.

Speaking of interviews, there’s an audio interview with Huston from 1984. With this, as with the intro by Gallo, there’s one technical glitch that bothered me. When you’re listening to just audio–there’s no way to pause it, at least not on my player, and my player’s pretty much brand new with the latest firmware. And because on my remote the play and pause key are the same, I wound up starting the damn audio over. And there’s no way to advance. So. Suck. But anyway, Huston’s interview covers not just the experience of making Volcano but also his career at that time, his opinions on getting older, and how Volcano compares with his earlier literary adaptations. Very nice.

The “Notes From ‘Under the Volcano'” touts itself as an “hour-long documentary,” and about half of that is accurate. The length is right, but it’s only an hour of behind the scenes footage with some brief bits of chatting with Huston and Finney, for example. Every so often, a bit of narration kicks in to tell us where we are and what we’re supposed to be seeing on screen. Not exactly my idea of a documentary, but whatever. What’s realy interesting here is that you get to see Huston…well, acting like a normal director. This in opposition to the what I mentioned previously: that he approached things from the angle of a zen watchmaker, i.e. winding things up and letting them go.

The proper documentary, Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, from 1976, is the final feature on the discs. It’s a fascinating portrait that takes you through the author’s life from start to finish. If you’re like me and you haven’t read the book, you still get a glimpse, via the movie, of the madness that went into forging source material. The docu is fascinating specifically because it shows you how Lowry could have indeed written such a tome, trying to cram everything that he had in his mind into a single volume. Featured in this are sections of the novel, read by Richard Burton.

So, that’s a lot of stuff to go through, but I watched all of it. Even though I didn’t think the movie itself worked all that well, it’s worth renting just on its own to see Finney give an amazing performance. Take that and couple it with the features that Criterion brings to the table (as they are wont to do), and you get a two-disc set that I would recommend, simly because Criterions are almost always worth owning.

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