Film Review #135: Under the Volcano
1984/Criterion Collection DVD 2007
Director: John Huston
Cast: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews
Although it hasn’t made it to Central New York yet, one of the most anticipated and well-received films in theaters right now is 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as ill-fated brothers and, as their father, the five-time Oscar nominee Albert Finney.
Like Lumet, Finney qualifies as an “old lion.” But 23 years ago, Finney embodied another character’s declaration – “I’m still strong as a bull!” – when he starred in John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Just before Lumet’s new film opened, Criterion Collection re-released Under the Volcano as a sumptuous two-disc set, one of the finest such combinations of film and supporting materials I have seen, worth watching for the younger Finney, the later Huston, the illumination of how novels reach the screen and the many parallels with today’s cinematic concerns that emerge.
Director John Huston was 77 when he brought Malcolm Lowery’s “unfilmable” novel to the screen in 1984 – Huston had two more films in him before he died in 1987 – and when, interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival, he called Finney’s performance as the doomed alcoholic British consul Geoffrey Firmin “the finest I have ever witnessed, let alone directed.”
Firmin’s last 24 hours coincide with the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1938 Cuernavaca, the capital of Morelos state and about an hour south of Mexico City. Finney portrays a man whose own dead have risen to haunt him, who tries once more to reconcile with his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), and who sees not only what’s coming on the eve of World War II but how the mistakes of the past have gone uncorrected.
By lovely coincidence I watched Under the Volcano, along with Criterion’s bonus features, over this year’s Day of the Dead – All Saint’s Day is November 1st and All Soul’s Day is the 2nd. In Mexico and elsewhere entire families celebrate by visiting cemeteries with flowers, food, drink, music and vast numbers of candles to entertain their departed. Day of the Dead observances have more recently found their way on screen too – in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006), set in Spain, and in Milcho Manchevski’s new film, Shadows, set in Macedonia – so in Huston’s film the ritual seems both oddly contemporary and particularly apt as an image paired with alarms of looming war.
Lowery’s 1947 novel was replete with symbols and fractured chronology – screenwriter Guy Gallo says his first script was “very French, with lots of hallucinations and flashbacks” – which Huston, despite his admiration for much in the novel and his fascination with Firmin, found “suffocating.” The director pared away much of that overgrowth for a narrative of straightforward momentum. Firmin tells his own riveting story – repeatedly, it seems, and drunkenly – of the “missing” German officers aboard a U-boat in World War I whom he threw into the furnace of his ship, the S.S. Samaritan. As well, Firmin makes a drunken scene at a formal ball, predicting to the German consul that trains filled with dead will crisscross Europe. Firmin’s disillusion with what has occurred in the years between the wars, which has not resulted in the world reforming, richly adds to our own current re-appraisal of the World War II era.
Firmin’s inability to forgive himself matches his inability to forgive Yvonne and his younger half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) for their affair. Firmin’s extremes – his drinking and nastiness set against his real fragility, the deep loss he feels about Yvonne, the horror of what he sees the fascists will create – all generate the film’s full-tilt suspense. Finally thugs gun Firmin down and roll him into a muddy ditch outside a brothel in a downpour.
Huston lived in Mexico for many years, but this was a return to working there – 20 years after Night of the Iguana (1964) and 35 years after The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) – and he made such use of local colleagues for cast and crew that this is practically a joint US-Mexican production. This sheds light on the degree of film production present in those years in Mexico and the subsequent brilliance we have seen from Mexican film in recent years. For example, Huston’s production designer for this film was the Mexican painter, Gunther Gerzso, who designed three of Bunuel’s Mexican films and John Ford’s The Fugitive. His DP was Gabriel Figueroa; his art designer, Jose Rodriguez Granada; his editor, Roberto Silvi. Mexican matinee idol Ignacio López Tarzso plays Firmin’s friend, the physician, Dr. Vigil, who gently urges him to pray for his wife’s return (she indeed turns up the next morning).
One of the delights of this set is Gary Conklin’s hour-long1984 “making-of” documentary for such background material, but also for its substantial attention to how filming actually proceeds. Additionally, there’s an audio interview with Huston himself at Cannes in 1984, new interviews recorded last summer for this set with screenwriter Guy Gallo and actor Jacqueline Bisset, and a film commentary with the producers. These set a high bar for what DVD extras can offer a film’s new audience. As an extra bonus to tickle our “what if” bone, there’s a doc about Malcolm Lowery narrated by Richard Burton, the actor whom Huston long assumed should play Firmin.
Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is scheduled to screen in Rochester at The Little. A little lobbying of the Manlius Cinema to bring it nearer wouldn’t be out of order.
This review appeared in the 11/8/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Rent such films at the locally-owned Emerald City Video, 3208 Erie Blvd. East in Syracuse.