‘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.