Friday, August 12, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Under the Volcano (1984)

Under the Volcano (1984) *** ½
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Guy Gallo based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry.
Starring: Albert Finney (Geoffrey Firmin), Jacqueline Bisset (Yvonne Firmin), Anthony Andrews (Hugh Firmin), Ignacio López Tarso (Dr. Vigil), Katy Jurado (Senora Gregoria), James Villiers (Brit), Dawson Bray (Quincey), Carlos Riquelme (Bustamante), Jim McCarthy (Gringo), José René Ruiz (Dwarf).

Under the Volcano is about a British alcoholic living in Mexico. John Huston, who was known to drink and was an American who spent most of his final years in Mexico, could probably relate to that. It is based on a book by Malcolm Lowry that was thought to be unfilmable, but that never stopped Huston before, who often took on literary adaptations thought to be unfilmable (his final movie was based on James Joyce’s The Dead for example). The movie takes place before the outbreak of WWII, and there is talk of what the Nazis are doing in Mexico, who they’re backing and who is getting killed. But these conversations take place mainly in the background, and happen because the main character was once the British Consul to Mexico, and his half brother is a reporter who is following the story, and as such, they are expected to talk about such things. The main character doesn’t much care – he acts like he does, but when it gets right down to it, all he really cares about is when and where he is going to get his next drink.

The main character is Geoffrey Firmin, and he is played in one of his best performances by Albert Finney. The movie traces his character for 24 hours over Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations – starting with Finney getting drunk, giving an offensive speech , and then stumbling around the city before falling asleep in a ditch. The next morning, he wakes up, and drags himself home – still wearing his tuxedo. His wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) shows up after a long absence, during which time she has gotten a divorce, and says she wants him back. Geoffrey has wanted her to return for months now, but now that she has come back, he becomes somewhat cruel to her – he is alternately drawn to her, and repelled from her. We gather fairly early that she had an affair with his half brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), who joins them as they go out to celebrate the day of the dead. Much of what happened in the past is left unspoken, but it hangs over everything in the film.

Actors love it when they get to play drunks. It allows for a lot of stumbling and slurred speech, or in others words it gives them a chance to ACT. Most overdo it to one degree or another, or else, the directors do, as they try to get too fancy with the direction to try to put us in the drunk’s “state of mind”. Billy Wilder’s Oscar winning The Lost Weekend with Ray Milland, pretty much set up all of the drunk movie clichés that movies have followed ever since – and while it worked in that film, it doesn’t in many others. But Albert Finney and John Huston do something different with Geoffrey. He is a drunk who is at his most lucid, most understandable, when he is drunk. It’s in his brief moments of sobriety when he looks at his worst. When you drink as much as Geoffrey does, it no longer get you drunk, but rather it simply gets you back to normal. Finney never overdoes his performance here, but rather he hits all the right notes. I don’t know if he started drinking to dull the pain of his failing marriage, or his marriage failed because of his drinking – but it doesn’t matter. The result is the same. Yvonne may have come back to Geoffrey, but it isn’t only because she loves him – it’s because she had no where else to go. Before they got married, she was an actress in New York, and when she left him, that’s where she went once again. But she’s aging now, cannot get the great parts anymore, and once the run of her play ended, and she didn’t get another one, what else was she supposed to do? Finney is brilliant in his role, but Bisset matches him in every scene, not so much in terms of acting ability, but in being just what the movie needed. She is a woman he both loves and hates – that he wants to forgive, but cannot. She accepts him for who he is, because deep down, she does love him, and needs him. The weak link in the cast is Anthony Andrews, not really because he acts poorly, but because little more than his physical presence is required. He’s younger than Geoffrey, more athletic, better looking. He loves Geoffrey in his way, but more than that he pities him. And while Geoffrey knows he needs him, he hates him for that pity. Geoffrey knows that Yvonne and Hugh would be happier together without him, and that destroys him. And in his selfishness, he destroys not only himself, but those around him as well.

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