Under the Volcano


‘…Under the Volcano is a tough watch, but it nails the central character and his excesses, and the underrated Bisset does well to hold her own with Finney when he’s at full tilt…’

‘You can’t apologise for some things,’ mutters Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) after someone explains the murderous plot of the classic horror movie The Hands of Orlac to him. It’s a key line, repeated later in the script for Guy Gallo’s adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s novel, that captures Firmin’s guilt and also his stubborn defiance in the face of death. Yet even as we see Death encroaching, Firmin seems unwilling to accept that mortality is catching up with him in John Huston’s stirring drama.

Stirring not in the sense of rousing, but stirring up painful memories of alcoholism and addiction; think of the worst case of boozing you’ve encountered, and the character of Firmin matches it and then some. Played with total immersion by Albert Finney, Firmin drinks all day and all night, is rarely sober, and yet is partially protected by age-old notions of white privilege. He’s the British consul in a small Mexican town, one which happens to be celebrating the Day of the Dead. It’s a momentous juncture; Firmin’s wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) has just returned, and Firmin has aspirations to get on the wagon and sort himself out, but time is rapidly running out.

Huston’s late period is dotted with underrated films like Wise Blood, and Under the Volcano, despite Oscar nominations at the time, has fallen out of favour; a rebirth on streaming should rectify that, with the new print showing nuances of acting and direction that VHS pan and scan could not capture. It’s a meaty, atmospheric, unsparing film that demands a lot of the audience, but literary-minded cineastes will want to see it through to the bitter end.

And Under the Volcano isn’t just about the words; it is cinematic, right from the opening, directed by Huston’s son Danny, which makes great play of Day of the Dead iconography, and there’s poetic, arresting moments such as Firmin’s lament for the ‘beauty of an old Mexican woman and a chicken’. Yes, Under the Volcano is a tough watch, but it nails the central character and his excesses, and the underrated Bisset does well to hold her own with Finney when he’s at full tilt.


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  1. Saw it a long time ago. I remember being impressed by Finney, but not drunk enough to totally enjoy the movie. I must have a new vision of it.
    Thanx for your review.

  2. I’d like to make a smart remark about this, but the subject matter really doesn’t lend itself to that. Probably the best I could give this movie would be a gentle “I don’t think it’s for me”. After how Condor turned out, I’m leery of movies and books at the moment.

    If anyone ever accidentally leaves a comment on the site itself and that little “no, you can’t comment” thingy pops up, there is a “return” link in that message that if you press twice will return your comment to be editable (and copy-able for commenting through the wp reader)

    • Good to know, thanks for the tip.

      No, there’s no real volcano adventure in this, so you can skip it. Here’s a shiny sixpence, go and buy yourself something nice at the market.

  3. My favourite scene was when the consul gets squared in the nuts. That was classic. Has there ever been a bad movie with that in it?

    Book was a bit overly schematic in the still trying to do Joyce way but a good read. I actually didn’t care for Finney too much here, but it might have been the character more than the performance. Been a while since I saw it.

    Did you fix your spetic tank? Do they let you drive that on the road?

    • I’m trading my sights on you. Who is this Joyce woman you speak of?

      I like seeing Finney with the bit between his teeth, but yes, an exasperating character. I thought this was boring in 1984, but less so now. I’d hoped it would be more of a disaster pic…the title suggests a giant mole machine and underground monsters…are they in the book?

      • No mole men, but the bad guy has a secret base built under the volcano that he launches rockets from. I was referring to Dr. Joyce Brothers, who gave advice on things like how to fix broken spetic tanks.

        • Oh, yes, she was brilliant in the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I thought you meant Joyce Carol Oates, she wade great tunes with Darryl Hall.

          So it the book they show you his actual lair under the volcano? So that’s where the phrase came from. I only watched this because I thought it was the sequel to the Tommy Lee Jones film…

  4. One of my favourite all-time books. Loved this when it came out. You could do a lot more movies like this in those days. Terrific performance from Finney and Bisset too was excellent.

    • Monumental work from Finney, absolutely huge performance, but not OTT, still tightly tuned into script and character. Agree that this kind of movie is lesser seen these days; I should probably take a look at the book…

      • Book is great, as I said, Any chance we could go back to that decade – the previous year we had Terms of Endearment, The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, Local Hero, Silkwood, Tender Mercies, all top top quality drama, Chances of getting that range of movies these days is zilch.

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