Under the Volcano Review

"Hell is my natural habitat."

Director (and Oscar-nominated actor) John Huston was one of the great American filmmakers of the 20th Century. It's undeniable really, what with films as accomplished as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Asphalt Jungle to his credit and late-career triumphs like The Man Who Would Be King and The Dead. Huston was a keen adapter of novels to the screen, whether he wrote the screenplay himself or worked from someone else's adaptation. He was somehow able to turn the work of another author into stories distinctly his own. Frequently populated by self-destructive male protagonists with flawed morals, Huston's films encompassed five decades of Hollywood sea changes without the grizzled director losing a step.

His third-to-last time behind the camera was, staying true to form, the 1984 film version of Malcolm Lowry's novel Under the Volcano. Lowry was an Englishman with a drinking problem who took retreat in Mexico in the late 1930s following the dissolution of his marriage. Geoffrey Firmin, the main character in Under the Volcano, is an Englishman with a drinking problem who takes retreat in Mexico in the late 1930s following the dissolution of his marriage. The more learned about Lowry, the more he becomes nearly inseparable from his protagonist. Often called "unadaptable," much of Lowry's book had to be altered or omitted by screenwriter Guy Gallo after Huston expressed an interest in a straightforward narrative absent the flashbacks and hallucinations prevalent in the novel. The result is a mostly successful exploration into the outer psyche of man as defeated drunk.

The film opens on the evening of November 1, 1938 in Mexico, the Day of the Dead. Firman's wife has divorced him and he's in serious disarray. Once a diplomat, even earlier a WWI soldier, he's subconsciously suicidal and must know there's no happy ending ahead. Letters from Yvonne, the now ex-wife (played by Jacqueline Bisset), remain unopened and misplaced, their marriage ruined presumably by Geoffrey's implosion and a brief affair the former missus had with his half-brother and current caretaker Hugh (Anthony Andrews). The disgraced Consul visits a church at the urging of a local friend and drunkenly prays for the return of his beloved Yvonne. When she shows up almost right after the holy plea, Geoffrey is barely fazed and seems to prefer ruing her absence than having her there, trying to patch things up. Though this film version never gives any reason to doubt Yvonne's existence, Lowry's book and the hallucinatory, circuslike atmosphere in the movie both allude to the idea that her presence could be imaginary, a theory supported by the interview with Bisset in this release.

From there, the boys Firman and Yvonne take an awkward journey via bus and witness the criminal realities of Sandinista activity. A bullfight and another drink from the endless pool of alcohol readies the Consul for eruption, a not so dormant volcano threatening to cross over into fire and brimstone. This leads Geoffrey to his downfall, the one that the entirety of Under the Volcano's runtime has been building toward. You don't just take a rambling, disconcerted drunkard through a couple of hours of heartbreak and disappointment and expect things to turn out okay. Whatever the relationship between Geoffrey and Yvonne that once existed, it's now been extinguished. Geoffrey is no longer capable of real human interaction without the aid of alcohol. The recovery regimen set up by Hugh has been laughably subverted. Though Under the Volcano never relies on or exploits his addiction, the film ultimately hinges on Geoffrey's relationship with booze more than with Yvonne. Where would either be without the bottle?

Albert Finney makes Geoffrey a perpetually marinated, semi-coherent mess, completely unable to choose what's best or salvage any opportunity at reconciliation. Finney is a force. Resembling a well-done lobster already soaked in butter, the actor stumbles through bar, bathroom and brothel with a perfectly soaked expression of sweat and bleary-eyed confusion. Acting inebriated is too often an actor's shortcut, but not so here. Geoffrey seems incapable of sobriety. He's not so much a man with a drinking problem as one with a drinking proclivity. All alcohol, all the time. Drinking to sobriety, only to become intoxicated yet again. There is zero glamourisation in Finney's performance. It's as fully-rounded and devastatingly raw as alcoholism has ever been portrayed on film. Finney nails not just the ups and downs, but the in-betweens too.

Huston's focused direction and the cinematography of fellow septuagenarian Gabriel Figueroa, a legend in Mexican cinema who worked with Luis Buñuel seven times and John Ford on The Fugitive, elevate Under the Volcano beyond merely being an impressive showcase for Finney. With winks to other Mexican film icons Emilio Fernández and Katy Jurado and meticulous production design by Gunther Gerszo, the country becomes its own character. If Sierra Madre, The Night of the Iguana and this film represent an unintentional Mexican trilogy in Huston's career, there's never been another filmmaker in the English language as adept at showing a land so unforgiving in its exposure of the flaws and inevitable deterioration of man's soul. The damaged triptych of greed, lust, and addiction is on full display in these respective films, and presented as grim cautionary tales by Huston.

The Discs

The video quality on Criterion's R1 NTSC disc is perhaps a hair below their usual standards, but nothing indicates this is any fault of the DVD production. Under the Volcano is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen televisions, and looks very '80s. That dull, almost hazy sheen frequently seen in movies of this decade is present here. Detail is a little soft, but still better than most films from the time period. Skin tones look maybe a tad red, possibly from the alcohol (the Consul's, not mine). Regarding dirt, print damage, and the like, the progressive transfer is nearly perfect and looks very clean. A bit of digital noise is present, though not distracting. In short, it looks just fine, but less impressive than even some of the Criterion transfers for films one or two decades earlier. I'd guess that it's probably about as good as this particular film is going to look in standard definition though, and there's really no reason to quibble.

Slightly more distressing, in a nitpicky sort of way, is why Criterion chose 1.78:1 instead of the film's apparent original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The booklet boasts of editor Roberto Silvi's supervision in creating the high definition digital transfer, but no claims that the film is in its original aspect ratio are made. When the title was first announced, such assurances were present and the aspect ratio was listed on Criterion's website as 1.85:1 (as it is at the time of this review). A slight opening up of the image is basically a non-story, but Criterion's usually vigorous commitment to OAR makes such an omission mildly glaring. They repeatedly have used 1.78:1 as a widescreen-friendly compromise between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1, but doing so in opposition to the true original aspect ratio seems antithetical to their policy. Here, since Huston and Figueroa are no longer with us, Criterion is, at best, using the endorsement of the film's editor to make the picture completely fill out widescreen televisions, the same ones they ignore in their windowboxing rationalisation. (I love you Criterion, but consistency is important, especially if you expect people to pay a premium for your product.)

What's that? Oh yes, the disc. Audio is absolutely without complaint. Presented in monaural Dolby Digital 1.0, sounds are clear and the levels really give no cause for concern. I heard no hisses, pops, crackles, or snaps. Subtitles for the hearing impaired are available in English only, and are white in colour. Spanish spoken in the feature is subtitled, but remains untranslated. This is the first DVD release of Under the Volcano, and, typical of Criterion, it looks remarkably clean and sounds satisfyingly clear.

Living up to their reputation regarding supplementary features, Criterion welcome Huston into the fraternity with commentaries, documentaries, and interviews spread across two dual-layered discs. On the first, a theatrical trailer and three separate commentaries accompany the feature. Danny Huston, son of John and an actor in his own right, provides a nearly 6-minute audio commentary on the main title sequence, which he directed. Screenwriter Guy Gallo continues the audible fun with an almost 17-minute introduction. Gallo's primer is, like many other Criterion audio-only supplements, immune to the pause button, as he discusses his initial involvement with the project, working with John Huston, and the reaction of those who loved the book and were upset with the differences. Gallo follows up the introduction with 30 minutes worth of scene-specific commentary spread over 6 portions of the film. His insight into the line of creative demarcation separating his own ideas with that of Huston's makes for a fascinating listen. This might be my favourite feature of the set, though a "play all" option would have been nice.

Rounding out the first disc is yet another commentary, this time feature-length and courtesy of the film's producers, Michael Fitzgerald, Wieland Schulz-Keil, and Moritz Borman. The three men seem to have been recorded separately, but the track has been edited together seamlessly and leaves very little dead air. Even if the prospect of hearing a trio of producers talk for nearly two hours doesn't sound very interesting, I'd recommend giving these gentlemen a listen because they're clearly proud of the film and deliver an informative and enjoyable commentary. A new interview with Jacqueline Bisset, interlaced and in anamorphic widescreen, kicks off disc 2, running a little over 18 minutes and covering a fairly comprehensive range of topics related to the film. It's joined by an hour-long documentary by Gary Conklin entitled Notes from "Under the Volcano" that's little more than an extended making-of featurette, shot on the Mexican set. For most films this might seem overly promotional or uninteresting, but most films aren't directed by John Huston. Seeing Huston at work as director and, briefly, raconteur provides enough interest to justify Criterion's inclusion and the viewer's time spent watching. They've opted to windowbox the 1.33:1 progressive transfer.

A 99-minute look at Under the Volcano author Malcolm Lowry that pre-dates Huston's film is the other big bookend on the second disc. Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry is the 1976 Academy Award-nominated documentary (coincidentally losing to Barbara Kopple's Criterion-blessed Harlan County U.S.A.) made and narrated by Donald Brittain, with Richard Burton giving voice to Lowry's writings. Full of information about Lowry (too much, really, and when you hear the words "syphilis museum" after the 17-minute mark, avert your eyes; you'll thank me), from his privileged youth to his "death by misadventure," the documentary paints his novel as a trade-off for a life otherwise wasted. It's a depressing and exhausting look at a man who comes across as an unsympathetic wastrel, someone who spent years working on a literary masterpiece but was unable to do anything constructive with the rest of his life. It too is presented progressively in 1.33:1, but is not windowboxed.

For more Huston insight, there's an audio-only (with the ability to pause, this time) half-hour interview between French film critic Michel Ciment and the director conducted in May 1984 during the Cannes Film Festival. Even if I disagree with Huston's assertion here that Firman isn't self-destructive, I wouldn't dare pull on an old lion's tail. The two-disc set is capped off by a 18-page booklet featuring a choice essay by Christian Viviani and highlighted by a collection of stills from the film and of Huston.

Final Thoughts

Criterion's release of Under the Volcano packs quite a bit into two discs. In total, we have over eight hours of material here. Add in a booklet and this seems about as complete a package as reasonably possible. I watched every minute and read every word, starting with the feature, moving on to the supplements, and returning to the commentaries. I found my appreciation of the film growing in correlation with the more supplements I watched. There's a lot of dialogue that initially seems like ramblings, but actually sheds light on truths and fears of that great period of uncertainty between the wars. It's not just a movie about a drunk, though if you don't like seeing alcoholics on screen then you likely won't enjoy Huston's film. Importantly, there's also more to the package than just the film. Pertinent information about the self-destructive life of Malcolm Lowry and how trying it can be to take an uncinematic novel and put it on screen make Criterion's set appealing to anyone with the slightest interest in the film, Lowry, or John Huston. Overall, this is an exceptional release of a very strong film.

8 out of 10
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