Under the Volcano: Before the Stillness

Oct 23, 2007

Under the Volcano, made in 1984, is the thirty-fourth of thirty-six feature films in a body of work that began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon. Already ill but brimming with vitality, John Huston was then seventy-eight years old. He had always alternated personal projects, often adaptations of books he admired (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948; The Red Badge of Courage, 1951; Moby Dick, 1956), with more overtly “mainstream” works, succeeding brilliantly at reconciling the demands of both in the genre film (The Maltese Falcon; The Asphalt Jungle, 1950; The African Queen, 1951). Yet in the final years of his life and his career, he tended to save his passion for his personal literary projects, and his commissioned works from the period—Phobia (1980) and Victory (1981)—demonstrate a total lack of commitment (in contrast, even a film as impersonal, and as difficult to shoot, as 1958’s The Barbarian and the Geisha contains some “Hustonian” touches). Perhaps it was a sense of being at the end of his life that made Huston stop pretending to be interested in other people’s projects. It seems he couldn’t be bothered even to try to hide the mediocrity of the material he had been handed in Phobia and Victory, films that could have been made by a more anonymous director without anyone noticing the difference.

It was with The Man Who Would Be King (1975), a project that he had been thinking about since the 1950s—based on a Rudyard Kipling story—that Huston made his return to literary adaptation. After the success of that bold “action-adventure” (in which both the action and the adventure are more within the characters than on the screen), Huston began favoring fictional works that were problematic, in terms of translating them to screen, because of the importance given to internal monologue or their absence of action. In less than ten years Huston would adapt three stories considered to be “unadapt-able”: Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor, Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry, and “The Dead,” by James Joyce. In each case the adaptation rose to the challenge by deliberately ignoring false problems and by choosing to render the spirit rather than the letter of the original. It was not a matter of filming everything but of filming only what Huston liked, which is, in fact, a constant throughout his work. The culmination of this approach, The Dead (1987), is a film that is both respectful and free, and it became a kind of legacy work, in which Huston does not so much film Joyce’s story as use it as a pretext for offering his daughter Anjelica and his son Tony the gift of his artistic heritage.

Three years earlier, Under the Volcano had been an important step toward this achievement. The original novel, whose adaptation had already tempted (and discouraged) Luis Buñuel, among others, was not a choice dictated by its facility. Lowry had spent ten years polishing his only major work (it was published in 1947). In six-hundred-plus pages, he recounts the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a fallen British diplomat, in a Mexican village. While an eruption of the Popoca-te-petl volcano threatens, mescal transports Firmin back into his memories, to his internal world, but also through the present, where he confronts his brother and his estranged wife. The film could be disappointing to the unconditional admirer of Lowry’s cult novel. From the book, Huston and newcomer screenwriter Guy Gallo kept only three of the original four main characters (there was also a childhood friend, M.?Laruelle, the fourth point of a love quadrangle, turned triangle in the film), a few situations, but above all a framework, which allowed Huston to portray a very intimate confession. The screenplay systematically eliminates the most literary aspects of the source (flashback structure, interior monologue) in favor of an unfolding that takes place in the more realistic present and that allows some doubt to remain over what Firmin’s past could be. Thus brought back to the present moment, Under the Volcano is a film of exorcism. Through the alcohol-induced convulsive movements of Firmin, a fallen diplomat whose evening clothes are but a reminder of past dignity, Huston puts what is perhaps his own fear of decline, of departure without making peace with one’s loved ones, on the screen. A few years later The Dead would be the film of reassurance: in it Huston puts a majestic final point on his work through a pure, emotionally moving song that reunites a couple in confession.

In Under the Volcano Albert Finney portrays a figure of decline and of grandeur that had lived within the filmmaker from his earliest works: from a simple outline, it developed into a secondary and, finally, a main character. Huston, after having entrusted it to his own father, Walter (Captain Jacobi in The Maltese Falcon, and particularly the ragged old Howard in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), continued to pursue it. Captain Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen), Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck in Moby Dick), Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana, 1964), and the boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach in Fat City, 1972) were all its avatars. He himself, in his most gripping performances as an actor (in Richard Sarafian’s Man in the Wilderness, 1971, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, 1974), would enjoy bringing it to life. Early in his career this could be interpreted as the quest for a father figure, but this character gradually evolved into the filmmaker’s own double. With it he shared the craggy countenance, the penchant for alcohol, and the nostalgia for the exotic. Geoffrey Firmin is the ultimate incarnation of this figure, which Huston would have to sacrifice in order to continue along the path that would lead him to The Dead. Finney’s brilliantly theatrical interpretation is balanced by the actor’s delicacy in expressing the secret nuances of the character, particularly in the very allusive scenes with Jacqueline Bisset, an underrated actress who here has one of the most beautiful roles of her career. (Huston’s 1982 Annie, a much less impersonal film than one might believe, gave the director his first contact with Finney, whose solitary Daddy Warbucks is like a smiling, caricatural version of the melancholy, tragic Firmin, the latter fond of black dinner jackets, while Warbucks prefers white.)

To imbue Under the Volcano with its poisonous climate, Huston turned to Gabriel Figueroa (pictured below), the exceptional Mexican director of photography. Celebrated for his pictorial black and white, Figueroa (who began in 1932, with Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico!) had created for John Ford (The Fugitive, 1947), Buñuel (seven films), and especially Emilio Fernández (twenty-three films) a gripping imagery consisting of majestic landscapes and chiaroscuro in the style of Goya. (Emilio “El Indio” Fernández plays the character Diosdado in Under the Volcano.) Figueroa had already worked with Huston on The Night of the Iguana. For Under the Volcano he would use color to create, from the early images of Firmin’s nocturnal wanderings, an allegorical universe that mixes death (sugar-candy skulls and bones, laughing masks) and celebration (garish lanterns, garlands). Figueroa’s use of overexposed day scenes adds dry textures, palpable heat, and a feeling of suffocation. Trapped this way, between a night peopled with wild illusions and the blinding light, Firmin seems irremediably condemned.

In this climate of heat and dust, whiteness signals the progression of death, as if Firmin’s entire universe were becoming ossified. In The Night of the Iguana, black and white had allowed Figueroa and Huston to emphasize a heat that was more humid (clothing drenched in perspiration, swimming) and a darkness that was more sensual (the midnight baths of Ava Gardner and her minions). These two films, together with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, constitute a kind of Mexican trilogy for Huston. All concern characters in exile searching for a new beginning. Here, at the border with the United States, Mexico offers the fantasy of an imaginary geography, where Hustonian “misfits” wander between adventure (Sierra Madre) and sex (Night of the Iguana), before accepting death (Under the Volcano). (We can add as a codicil a little-known but fascinating film by Huston: We?Were Strangers, 1949, set in an imaginary Cuba, in which John Garfield and Jennifer Jones, both seeking rebirth, are torn between desire and ideological commitment. The digging of an underground tunnel exacerbates the passions and dooms them, symbolically, to suffocation.) Great travelers, Huston’s characters are also runaways: the filmmaker is always happy to emphasize the mental over the geographic and to describe exile (Asia, Europe, Mexico) as a place reduced to basic impulses, obliging the runaway to confront his truth and his death. Huston’s Mexico, where emphasis is placed on its suffocating qualities rather than on its open spaces, is, in these three films, the place that offers the fewest ways out and that most resembles a real trap.

Under the Volcano is, as we see, a fundamental part of the Hustonian edifice. It marks a move from the implicit to the obvious for obsessions present since the filmmaker’s earliest work. Its desperate and destructive character seems like an obligatory passage for Huston. Geoffrey Firmin’s last day allows the filmmaker to paint without complacency the emotions of a man facing the end of his life. The Dead will provide no such figure for identification. The day will become a few hours, and a town will be reduced to a simple middle-class apartment. This is the ultimate act of modesty for a filmmaker who often preferred indirect speech. That is why direct speech makes Under the Volcano such a precious film: John Huston’s own voice was rarely heard so clearly. Make no mistake: just as Malcolm Lowry must have been in full possession of his art as a writer in order to render the poetic frenzy of an alcoholic, John Huston was in full possession of his when he put it on the screen.

Christian Viviani is an assistant professor at Paris 1–Sorbonne, where he specializes in American cinema and actors. He is also the coordinator and an editor at the journal Positif and has written several books, including Le western, Les séducteurs du cinéma américain, Ernst Lubitsch (with N. T. Binh), and Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, regards croisés (with Michel Cieutat).

This essay was translated from the French by Ellen Sowchek.