Review: Under the Volcano

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]

Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.

—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.

This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated Waste Land for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)

To begin to capture this sort of texture on film, an adapter-director would need the semantic passion of a Godard, the phantasmagorical gifts of a Fellini, and the epic-analytical vision of a Syberberg, all grounded in the earthy, exultant, self-lacerating lust-for-life-and-death of a Sam Peckinpah. Even this mythical film creature might be forced finally to concede, with such estimable would-be adapters as Luis Buñuel, Joseph Losey, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Stanley Kubrick, that some aspects of the novelistic experience are simply not translatable from the printed page to the screen. Over the years, Under the Volcano has become legendary in movie circles as an “unfilmable” novel.

John Huston, the venerable, easygoing Hollywood director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King, et al., bears scant resemblance to the composite filmmaker I postulated a moment ago; yet he’s the man who’s succeeded in getting a version of Under the Volcano on film. Of his version, three things need to be said: It is emphatically not “the book.” It is, however, an absolutely magnificent film in its own right—something people who have never heard of Malcolm Lowry may have less difficulty recognizing than people worried about the novel and its legendary unfilmability. And it is also an absolutely magnificent and faithful adaptation—faithful not in the sense of being the way to bring the novel to film in all its novelistic particulars, but rather as a way to distill the novel’s power, and to provide a lucid, tensile cinematic frame within which that power can reverberate.

***

There’s really no reason to be surprised that Huston should have made Under the Volcano work. In so many ways, it’s a quintessential Huston property. Throughout his writing and directing career, he’s displayed an affinity for “quest movies,” stories about people with no fixed moral, spiritual, communal, or emotional base pursuing an objective that almost invariably they fail to attain, or attain only to lose. The particular enterprise—chasing a jeweled statuette of a falcon, looking for gold in the mountains of Mexico, seeking to pull off a big-time robbery or sink a German warship, save the elephants from extermination or win a kingdom in Kafiristan—is finally less important than the revelation of character in the process.

In this respect, ex-Consul Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is an exemplary Huston hero and his pilgrimage—for so his spatial and spiritual journey surely is—an exemplary Hustonian quest. Firmin is at the end of his tether. A longtime alcoholic whose energy is now devoted to “striking the fine balance between the shakes of too little and the abyss of too much,” he’s been left and divorced by his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and become an embarrassment—though a respectfully tolerated one—to the diplomatic community of which he is still, precariously, a social member. The Day of the Dead seems the appropriate setting for the last act of a ruined life, and he moves among the pageantry of mortality with lordly familiarity.

Still, a weakness for hope survives in him. His good friend Dr. Vigil (Ignacio López Tarso) leads him to the shrine of “the Virgin for those who have nobody with” and, almost against his will, he prays, profanely, for his wife’s return. The prayer may or may not be answered: at any rate, Yvonne does arrive back in town the very next morning, and the two of them, full of terror and yearning, edge toward resuming their marriage. The Consul’s journalist brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), himself a walking-wounded idealist with whom Yvonne once had an affair, joins them in a day of festivities. There are glad times, moments of promise, urgent declarations of renewed commitment and love. If only Geoff could be got away from Mexico, this at once radiant and poisoned paradise…. But at the moment of greatest auspiciousness, Firmin brutally rejects his chance. “Hell’s my preference. I choose hell. Hell is my natural habitat.” And the story moves toward terrible and irreversible conclusion.

Flawed Edens have been the natural habitat, or at least the locus of aspiration, of many a Huston film. Perfection is not in the nature of things: the Fall is something to be accepted, not reversed, not denied. However violently and destructively Geoffrey embraces his corruption, however inglorious is his end, he achieves the only order of triumph Huston, in his most serious endeavors, believes in: to “know thyself,” and to reject any euphemizing of that truth.

***

Huston, whose latterday masterpieces also include the bleakly beautiful Fat City and Wise Blood, does nothing to compromise Lowry’s despairing vision. Nor has he compromised his own instincts in how best to tell the story—any story—on film. Guy Gallo, who sent Huston the screenplay that finally convinced him a film could be made of Under the Volcano, has described how the director ruthlessly edited the final script: no matter how beautiful an image might be, it had to justify itself in terms of the moment-to-moment immediacy of a film narrative. No preciosity, no “poetry,” nothing but utterly straightforward, put-it-on-the-screen-and-make-it-play dramatic event.

By the same token, it’s almost impossible to catch Huston taking a fussy shot. His tours-de-force rarely announce themselves as such. There is a brilliantly sustained long take of Geoffrey lurching boisterously about at a Red Cross ball early in the film, with the camera snaking its way through a crowd of extras, catching Firmin in potent closeups and two-shots as he pursues a German attaché, bombarding him with a surreal harangue about passenger trains filling up with corpses during the coming war, and ultimately lurching to the microphone to elaborate on his ideas to the assembled guests. Only in retrospect does one recognize the technical control that went into the shot; while it plays, one is mesmerized, carried away with Firmin’s mad vision of things, and his exultation in courting public disgrace.

If there is one visual setup that most succinctly characterizes Huston’s style and outlook, it’s the two-shot in which a pair of characters share screenspace, even amicable companionship, while remaining essentially separate and unaware of each other’s experience of the moment. (We Were Strangers, the title of one of the director’s least-known works, might be the working title of almost any Huston picture.) At one point Firmin is chatting in a cantina with Doña Gregorio (Katy Jurado), a woman who, like most of the locals, honors the Consul even as she regretfully discounts most of what he says. Firmin speaks of his wife and how pleased he is that she has returned; he stands at a window from which he can see Yvonne down the street. Doña Gregorio sits with her back to the window, answering Geoffrey’s remarks as though, of course, he were only hallucinating about his wife’s return. She never goes to the window; she never knows that Yvonne really is there. In the window-frame the sunlit street glows blankly, washed out, overexposed, like a fading memory. (Photographically, this effect, so expressive, is perfectly realistic—one among many instances of the effulgent beauty of plainness so aptly and masterfully caught by the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.)

***

Lowry’s novel is filled with interior narration, characters’ histories and memories, meditations and imaginings. Anything we know about them in the film, we learn through direct, succinct action. Although his crisis of faith is much less compelling in the film than that of Yvonne or Geoffrey, Hugh, the brother who has traversed the globe seeking the just revolution, the right redeeming cause, is perfectly defined in Anthony Andrews’s abashed hesitation after telling Yvonne he was “wounded” in the Spanish Civil War: “I fell off the truck and seven cases of beer and a half-dozen journalists landed on top of me.” Jacqueline Bisset, a beautiful and admirable actress too rarely challenged by her material, catches the desperation of a woman terrified of living with the ruined Geoffrey and terrified of life without him.

It’s no reflection on these actors that audiences will emerge from Under the Volcano talking about one performance and one performance only. Albert Finney’s Geoffrey is simply one of the handful of screen performances we can regard as incontestably great. Everything Lowry, with his own tortured history and sensibility, poured into this character is vividly present in Finney’s portrayal. He catches the insane lyric wisdom and tragic self-indulgence, the bad/brilliant puns and viciously bungled logic, the greatness of this mysteriously wasted man and the flailing, self-destroying frenzy of being unworthy of that greatness. Every slur is lucid, every lie a wound against himself in the name of truth. “Some things you can’t apologize for,” he murmurs on two occasions, and in its proud self-awareness the line is as funny and as sad as any I have ever heard. The fine balance is in the handsomeness gone to seed, the lunging grace of every stumble. I’ll never forget him signaling wordlessly for a waiter to bring another round. Not a glass—the fingers waggle in the air, measuring an invisible bottle there. Offscreen, a country band strikes up a tune, and the waggling ineffably grows more flamboyant—a cosmic jester piping himself to hell.

Copyright © 1984 by Richard T. Jameson


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