From the vault: 1984
Under the Volcano
Starring: Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews
Director: John Huston
The film: 'I think it's the finest performance I've ever witnessed, let alone directed,' said John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) of Albert Finney's role in Under the Volcano, a film based on the only major work by the famously unprolific, alcoholic writer Malcolm Lowry.
Anyone who has read the quasi-autobiographical novel about a British consul drowning his sorrows in a 1930s Mexican town will find little to recognise in Huston's adaptation, but Finney manages to convey the essence of Lowry's character. In doing so he almost saves the day for Lowry aficionados, and certainly saves the film, which would be tough going without him.
Huston's Night of the Iguana, made 20 years earlier, also revolved around a drunken and disgraced Englishman (Richard Burton) in Mexico, and almost single-handedly turned the town of Puerto Vallarta into one of its most popular tourist resorts. But seldom can the country have looked as unappealing as it does in Under the Volcano.
Finney's nightmare world, which he inhabits in a perpetual state of drunkenness (above) - carefully calibrated according to his functional requirements - is partially enlightened by the arrival of his wife and the ongoing presence of his younger brother. It's when he becomes separated from them for the final half hour that his fatal path, followed with suicidal determination, takes him to what seems the most hellish milieu on Earth, and to a foregone conclusion.
Several directors - including Luis Bunuel and Ken Russell - considered and then abandoned what was widely considered to be an unfilmable novel. Huston's solution was to do away with Lowry's fractured, flashback narrative in favour of a linear approach, removing a major character and almost sidelining Firmin's wife and brother (played by Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Andrews) to focus on his swift demise. Consequently, viewers who are not already familiar with the book will probably enjoy the film more than those who are, but the generous extras provided in this new Criterion package will surely satisfy both.
The extras: Accompanying the film on disc one is a full-length commentary by the film's producers, selected-scene commentary by screenwriter Guy Gallo, and opening sequence commentary by the director's son, Danny Huston. Provided on disc two, the feature-length Oscar-nominated Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry (1976), narrated by Richard Burton, is worth watching before the film for an idea of where Lowry was coming from (and going) as he wrote the source novel, over a 10-year period.
Notes From Under the Volcano (1984) is an hour-long documentary made on the film set with Huston's blessing and candid participation from him and several of the cast members. There's also a new video interview with Bisset, and a 1984 audio interview with Huston.
The newly cleaned-up 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced transfer for Under the Volcano was supervised by its editor, Roberto Silvi.