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Based on a 1947 novel by an alcoholic, self-destructive writer named Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1984) is one of the rare successful examples of a film that does justice to a stream-of-consciousness book that supposedly couldn't be filmed. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is a former British consul and relentless dipsomaniac on a tear through Mexico during the celebrated Day of the Dead in the late 1930s. His estranged wife, Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), and half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), who once had a tryst with Yvonne, track him down and try to place a roadblock in his seemingly unstoppable ride to hell but ultimately put themselves in extreme danger as well thanks to a gang of fascistic thugs.
This project had bounced through Hollywood and abroad for decades through a startling variety of directors including Luis Buuel, Ken Russell, Joseph Losey, and Jules Dassin, among others. Its eventual home in the hands of the 78-year-old director John Huston seems inevitable when one considers his previous two forays into dusty, conscience-breaking journeys through Mexico in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and 1964's The Night of the Iguana (which shares this film's cinematographer, the gifted Gabriel Figueroa). Huston's wild reputation included a few jaunts south of the border in his spare time as well, including an impulsive marriage to his last wife, Celeste Shane, in 1977. He also knew a thing or two about complicated, estranged marriages, as he separated from his fourth wife, Ricki Soma, in 1962 (when he bore son Danny with another woman); the pair were only legally separated by her death years later.
Huston was no stranger to difficult literary projects either. While some of his more famous films are taken from mainstream novels (Moby Dick , The Red Badge of Courage ), he showed a willingness to tackle works deemed off limits by most producers, particularly Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood (which he directed with great success in 1979) and the Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye (which didn't fare nearly as well in 1967). However, in the '80s Huston became more of a director-for-hire on more impersonal films like the forgotten 1980 horror film Phobia, the competent but impersonal 1981 soccer film Victory, and most infamously, 1982's mega-budget version of Annie, his only musical.
That last film's bald-pated Daddy Warbucks was played by Albert Finney, an actor with whom Huston struck up a rapport and whom he recruited as the personification of Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano. Finney was enjoying a major career resurgence in between the two Huston films thanks to his Academy Award®-nominated role in 1983's The Dresser, the third of five total Oscar® nominations. One of the actors made famous through the "kitchen sink realism" movement of British cinema in the 1960s, Finney broke through as the lead in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and became a box office star with Tom Jones (1963). His subsequent roles were often surprising and eclectic, ranging from a singing Dickens lead in Scrooge (1970) to Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). However, Under the Volcano proved to be another major career changer for both star and director, with Finney diving into more dark, sordid characters in Miller's Crossing (1990), Dennis Potter's TV swan song pairing of Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (both 1996), and the closest to his Firmin character, the boozing, womanizing innkeeper lead in 1990's wild TV adaptation of Kingsley Amis' The Green Man.
As for Huston, the film also kicked off an astonishing three-picture climax to his career, followed by two more highly regarded films, Prizzi's Honor (1985) and The Dead (1987). Under the Volcano earned Huston his best reviews in years, even earning a four-star Roger Ebert notice. Huston's health problems including a long-running battle with emphysema had plagued him in his final years, but he kept directing and acting to the end, dying on August 28, 1987 while shooting Mr. North (1988) for his son's directorial debut.
Another major name on Under the Volcano near the end of his career was composer Alex North, with whom Huston had worked on Wise Blood and The Misfits (1961). A major name in American film scoring, North made his reputation with films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Spartacus (1960). Even in old age he showed no signs of slowing down, turning in a particularly effective and revolutionary dark fantasy score for 1981's Dragonslayer. His work on Under the Volcano organically introduces much local instrumentation and often feels like it could be performed out in the street; aurally it is as crucial to the film as the cinematography and performances. North's work here earned him his thirteenth and final Oscar® nomination, though his only win came the next year with a much-overdue Honorary Award. North scored Huston's next two films with equal aplomb and died four years after the director in 1991.
Producers: Moritz Borman, Wieland Schulz-Keil
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Guy Gallo (writer); Malcolm Lowry (novel)
Cinematography: Gabriel Figueroa
Art Direction: Jos Rodriguez Granada
Music: Alex North
Film Editing: Roberto Silvi
Cast: Albert Finney (Geoffrey Firmin), Jacqueline Bisset (Yvonne Firmin), Anthony Andrews (Hugh Firmin), Ignacio Lopez Tarzo (Dr. Vigil), Katy Jurado (Senora Gregoria), James Villiers (Brit), Dawson Bray (Quincey), Carlos Riquelme (Bustamante), Jim McCarthy (Gringo), Rene Ruiz 'Tun-Tun' (Dwarf)
C-112m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Nathaniel Thompson
McCarty, John. The Complete Films of John Huston. Virgin, 1994.
Viviani, Christian. "Under the Volcano: Before the Stillness." Essay for The Criterion Collection, October 2007.
Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)