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The Criterion Collection presents
Under the Volcano (1984)

"Hell is my natural habitat."
- Firmin (Albert Finney)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 22, 2007

Stars: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews
Director: John Huston

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:52m:19s
Release Date: October 23, 2007
UPC: 715515026420
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-AB+ B+

DVD Review

It's not just John Huston's handful of performances in front of the camera (most notably in Chinatown) that make him such an indelible presence in his movies—when you're watching a Huston picture, it's almost like you can feel a master craftsman at work, a quality that marked his films from The Maltese Falcon right up through The Dead. Under the Volcano is late-career Huston, but even as he was getting along in years he never recoiled from a challenge, and he certainly got one of those from Malcolm Lowry's novel, which has a sort of cult following and was deemed to be essentially unfilmable. No doubt the Mexican locale for the story was a particular lure for the director—on some level, it's an opportunity to revisit the dark colors of human nature that Huston examined south of the border decades before in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This film may not rise to that level—what could, really?—but it's still a blistering portrait of a soul hellbent on destruction.

The central figure of the story, set in 1938, is Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul whose rapacious alcoholism has finally forced him to resign his post, so that he can concentrate exclusively on his drinking. He's played with a kind of staggering brilliance by Albert Finney, a great actor who seems frequently underutilized or too long absent—no doubt when this movie was released in 1984, a great swatch of the audience figured that Finney was a fastidious and brilliant Belgian detective, and not one of the archetypical English Angry Young Men. What the movie can't hide, even if it wanted to, is Huston's wickedly dark comic sensibility—he has great sympathy for his lead, a grand, sloppy drunk, who chases after last drops of tequila like a kid after Halloween candy. (You see the same sort of impishness in Prizzi's Honor, which fortunately lacks the operatic seriousness of a movie like The Godfather.) The trappings of the movie suggest that we're supposed to take is a searing descent into the depths of the human condition, but it isn't really that grand—rather, it's one of the most brutal portraits you'll ever see of an alcoholic, in league with movies like The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Huston clearly has great fondness for Mexico, and the movie is often entranced by the country's particular brand of garish, ornate, almost pagan Catholicism—the imagery can be bloody and explicit, the perfect contrast to the pip-pip-eh-what shabby dignity of Finney's performance. Prominent in the cast too is Jacqueline Bisset, as Firmin's ex-wife, who for reasons known to her alone, has returned to the hell of living with an expatriate drinking himself to death in Cuernavaca; and Anthony Andrews, as Firmin's half-brother, whose deepest regret is giving up to early on his comrades in the Spanish Civil War. Finney has great fun with both of them, and you can sense him relishing this, what may be the role of a lifetime—when his wife first reappears, for instance, he takes her for a mirage, just another drunken hallucination, and it takes a good half dozen glances before he can puzzle out that it's actually her in the flesh.

There's a dollop of politics to the movie, too—one of the earliest and funniest sequences is when a German diplomat, flush with the promise of peace in our time, tries to buddy up with Firmin, who even in his drunken stupor can see through the Nazis for what they are. But it's much more of a character study than a period piece—at times you may wish that you knew Lowry's novel or remembered it better, though what's here is frequently dank and depressing enough.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A very sharp transfer, with exquisite rendering of the Mexican countryside. The work by Gabriel Figueroa, a legendary figure in Mexican cinematography, looks deep and menacing throughout this clean transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Reasonable enough and clear, though the mono track has its limits; Finney's voice can be overpowering, and Bisset can sound more than a little mousy.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
3 Documentaries
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by executive producer Michael Fitzgerald, producers Wieland Schulz-Kiel and Moritz Borman (track one); screenwriter Guy Gallo (selected scenes); Danny Huston (opening credits only)
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. audio interview
  2. accompanying booklet
  3. color bars
Extras Review: Huston and Lowry cast the longest shadows over the feature, and over the accompanying extras as well. Notes from Under the Volcano (58m:39s) was shot on the set of the picture—it suffers from a little too much voice over, but it's a portrait of Huston on the back nine of his career, and it's a privilege to see him at work. Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (01h: 39m:24s) is a feature-length documentary that was made in 1976—featured prominently is Lowry's widow, Marjorie, and extended meditations on just how much sacrifice an artist must make for the work. (In Lowry's case, the answer seems to be a whole hell of a lot.) It also goes over the grisly details of Lowry's inquest, and it's left for the viewer to decide whether or not the writer took his own life.

In a 2007 interview (18m:26s), Bisset discusses meeting and working with Huston, and she seems most gracious in looking to serve the material, and understanding that Finney was at the center of the storm. Three of the film's producers provide a commentary track, untangling the knots of the film's development and the protracted search to liberate the rights to Lowry's book—it's more nuts and bolts than aesthetics, which is fine. The director's son Danny was charged with directing the credit sequence of the film, and he provides commentary for that—he's got amazing vocal similarities to his father, and remembers the project with great fondness. And screenwriter Guy Gallo discusses getting involved with the script and the daunting experience of writing for the great man—his track comes with an introduction and runs under five scenes in the movie.

We hear a bit more from Huston in a truncated radio interview taped at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival—even with only audio, he's kind of an amazing, avuncular presence. And the highlight of the accompanying booklet is an essay by Christian Viviani, about the film's place in Huston's body of work.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A frequently macabre descent into the bottom of the bottle, with a towering central performance from Albert Finney, and one of the great American directors in the twilight of his career demonstrating that he's still got plenty in the tank. It's a handsome and informative Criterion release.


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