Under the Volcano
Dir. John Huston, U.S., 1984
by Nathan Kosub
“The name of this land is hell. It is not Mexico, of course, but in the heart.”
Thus author Malcolm Lowry cleared the air in life for the inevitable posthumous adaptation of his 1947 novel Under the Volcano. Lowry wrote in Los Angeles, briefly, but died of drink and pills in England. Mexico was his inspiration for Under the Volcano; Lowry traveled to Central America to escape the ministrations of a psychiatric hospital in New York. The book was a coveted property of self-mythologizing directors, and Albert Finney’s performance in John Huston’s third-to-last feature looms so largely over contemporary reviews that one suspects, long before seeing the film, that a movie in service of a strutting English actor would tread too carelessly on the private life of Lowry’s novel. Such is the hurdle of literary pedigree that people who prefer books believe movies cannot overcome. How happy, then, that Under the Volcano is squarely Huston’s animal.
The book is about the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul dying of alcoholism in Mexican cantinas, haunted by his estranged wife Yvonne’s past disloyalties, but doomed to see her again, and lose her again, definitively, the night he dies. The novel takes place on the Day of the Dead, when families congregate around tombstones with candles and food. There is a fair in town, with shooting galleries, mechanical gimmicks, and one Ferris wheel. Two volcanoes, christened by natives long before the Spanish arrived with Cortés, sit at the periphery and quietly ponder the continent.
The book is about more than Firmin; in its list of stars, brands of liquor, Mayan ancestries of faces in the crowd, the novel is, much like a constellation, a compendium of fixed points that delineate a route by which one finds one’s way back, alone, through the tangled concourse of memory, regret, and lost days. The book is huge in scope, enormous. A movie centered on a single performance could not approximate its size. Because Lowry wrote essentially this one novel during his life, and because his life was dismally unhappy, most writing about Under the Volcano is biographical supposition on the myths of the artistic mind. Thankfully, Huston’s film, now available on DVD from Criterion, isn’t about Lowry at all; it is, second, about alcoholism, and first, Mexico.
John Huston loved Mexico. He lived there, in Puerto Vallarta, and shot Night of the Iguana on his doorstep, in black-and-white, with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, director of photography for both Luis Buñuel and John Ford, when projects brought them to the country. Night of the Iguana belongs to the high cliffs of the seaside state of Jalisco. Like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s third Mexican film, Iguana is an adaptation. Many Huston films are.
He made Under the Volcano on location in the Mexican state of Morelos. Lowry was unhappy in Mexico, as everywhere, but not hopelessly so. The character Hugh (Geoffrey’s half-brother, played by Anthony Andrews) shows the best face of the author’s failed, bruised optimism. “Hugh didn’t know why,” Lowry wrote, “but this lad reminded him of how, in Mexico City, if you stand at a certain place on the Paseo de la Reforma in the early morning, suddenly everyone in sight will seem to be running, laughing, to work, in the sunlight, past the statue of Pasteur.” The asides in the novel are critical to the final impression of beauty before tragedy; in the film, we must see beauty, too. The tragedy is too obvious—the alcoholic’s long decline—but Huston and screenwriter Guy Gallo include explication on the demands and misconceptions of the disease. In the book, Geoff’s condition is never addressed from a medical point of view, most likely because Lowry and his doctors (who still prescribed alcohol to him long after he was an alcoholic) didn’t fully comprehend the finer points of addiction.
I harp on the idea of adaptation because Huston’s most famous films are taken from books (including his first, The Maltese Falcon). One small moment is all Huston and Gallo need to affirm their fidelity to the written page. Geoff, wandering the fairgrounds, boards a “looping-the-loop” machine in an act of emotional panic. As he spins upside down, gravity empties his pockets of coins, papers, and a pipe. He regains the ground to find a short gaggle of kids all around him. “Children, he thought,” Lowry wrote, “how charming they were at heart. The very same kids who had besieged him for money, had now brought him back even the smallest of his small change and then, touched by his embarrassment, had scurried away without waiting for a reward. Now he wished he had given them something.” Huston films the children, lets them mob Geoff with hands full of found objects, and includes nothing of the inner monologue. Finney’s face registers his gratitude.
But more importantly, Under the Volcano is true to Mexico’s inflections: conversations in alternating Spanish and English; the casting of Huston’s longtime driver as the maître d’ of an outdoor café; a bullfight shot at the centuries-old estate of Hernán Cortés. Even in the terrible climactic scene at the Farolito bar, the camera watches the old faces of its local cast while Geoffrey is dressed down by impostor federales. Huston is riveted by landscape, which at first seems odd, as Figueroa frames this city of the dead almost as a claustrophobic interior. But the inimitable verdure bides its time; as Hugh and Geoff talk, the camera drifts to Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), and then the hills behind her. One cannot avoid such beauty.
At one point, Hugh, after an impromptu bullfight, is carried on the shoulders of his admirers from the ring to (most likely) the bar. Yvonne, towards reconciliation, speaks with Geoff alone. She pulls him aside and they see, for a moment, a future together, north in Canada, everything back to the way it was and a new world that is only each other. The café, so recently full, is deserted. More than reinforcing the importance of Geoff to Yvonne, and Yvonne to Geoff, the scene, in a film about fire, reminds one of nothing so much as the sea, of a wave pulling back from the shore to reveal two anemones that, only moments later, begin to dry out in the sun. Hugh comes back, the hated contrast to Geoff’s impotence, and revives the old terrors of Yvonne’s infidelity; the whole country, it seems, is deserted by then.
An accompanying documentary on the DVD from 1976, Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry, is enough of a contrast to the heart of Huston’s film to underline what’s right about Huston’s adaptation. The documentary relies on a garish, troubling subjectivity in its images of the places where Lowry lived, specifically a swishy New York full of vagrants and perverts, and a sinister Mexico of shady back rooms and plotting throat-cutters. If director Donald Brittain’s implication is that New York and Mexico appeared dangerous and hostile to Lowry, Brittain conveys those nightmares through deeply problematic cues: kids on carousels at a fair, the light of a barber shop open past sunset, and a man eating alone in a Cuernevaca café. Because these people are poor, the images say, they are monstrous and terrible, lurking rapists or indifferent lost souls. Lowry and Huston were, if nothing else, at least willing to meet Mexico on Mexico’s terms.
In Lowry’s novel, the 1935 film Mad Love plays at a small theater in the town of Quauhnahuac, where the Consul lives. The Consul has watched the movie, titled Los Manos de Orlac in Spanish, and starring Peter Lorre, several times. In rural Mexico, old prints circulate through isolated habitations, disappear for months through the jungles and high plains of the country’s interior geography, and return in perennial repertory showings to be enjoyed, none the worse for wear, again and again. Some stories, though not Lowry’s, tell of a similar fate for the lost print of Orson Welles’s first cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, sent to him in Brazil before edits were made, misplaced by Welles, or left behind (if it was ever there), and said to screen every few years in lost towns through central America, before mescal drinkers, farmers, and hopefully kids, who perhaps recognize in the cadence of Welles’s narration the voices of fathers and the comfort of brothers and sisters asleep in the night beside them.
To see Welles recite Moby-Dick by the cabin-dim light of a homemade recording in Los Angeles (in the 1995 documentary Orson Welles: One-Man Band) is to realize that no novel cannot be adapted to the screen. Under the Volcano is no exception. In Huston’s hands, the bars of Cuernevaca wear gorgeous, bright posters where Lorre’s bald head, staring hideously at his fated, murderous creation, illumines a space that is never as terrible, or as sad, as the narrative of heartbreak and death it frames should, by all accounts, be. The director’s loosest interpretation of the source material is his decision to make Yvonne privy to Geoff’s awful fate, and then to have her share it, dead on a rainy road running towards him. One likes that the novel ends as it does, but Huston, knowing Lowry’s unhappy expiration, saw love differently. No less torturous, but a straighter way to the heart of the matter. In place of a book about so many things, Huston made a film about three people and a place. The acting, of course, is very good, but it’s more to Mexico’s credit (Mexico that sustained Huston and Lowry both through good years of sacrifice) that the landscape can accommodate all of them, and that hours in their company end, in spite of such desolate machinations, more warmly than forlorn.