One of my favorite actors is presently getting the red-carpet treatment at FilmStruck; “Starring Albert Finney” is a new theme that presents a batch of Finney’s films for your enjoyment including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), Tom Jones (1963) and A Man of No Importance (1994). If you’re new to Finney it is a great opportunity to familiarize yourself with one of Britain’s finest exports and if you’re a longtime fan like myself, it’s a good time to reacquaint yourself with some of his best work.
I used the occasion to revisit Under the Volcano (1984), John Huston’s scruffy adaptation of Malcolm Lowery’s highly acclaimed 1947 novel. I haven’t read the book but Huston’s film is a melancholy contemplation on life and death set in Mexico before the start of WWII. Following a provocative credit sequence comprised of calavera (skeleton) marionettes (shot by Huston’s son Danny) we’re introduced to Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney), a former British consul and chronic drinker suffering the debilitating effects of acute alcoholism. And as locals gather at gravesites to celebrate the Day of the Dead, Firmin’s tenuous existence begins to unravel in a booze-laden haze.
His wife (Jacqueline Bisset) and half-brother (Anthony Andrews) make unexpected appearances while offering him comfort and guidance but their efforts are for naught. Firmin can’t forgive them for carrying on a brief affair behind his back and their transgression has deeply wounded him. He is also haunted by memories of combat, court-martial, and accusations of crimes that took place during the previous world war. Like many people, he drinks to forget and forgive but the bottles of cheap liquor Firmin consumes have taken a terrible toll on his body and soul. As the winds of war begin to blow again, his persistent attempts to drown his sorrows will have tragic consequences for himself and those he loves.
The threadbare plot might disappoint anyone expecting a more conventional narrative with a familiar story arc. Instead, we only get slight hints and vague suggestions about what is fueling Firmin’s descent down a bottle because the film is more interested in the character’s finish than how he got there. As a result, Under the Volcano unfolds slowly and deliberately like a funeral dirge growing more ominous and taxing as it lurches towards its somber climax.
Many other filmmakers expressed interest in directing Under the Volcano including Luis Buñuel, Sam Peckinpah, Jules Daissin, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey but it’s fitting that the project finally ended up in the hands of John Huston. The difficult nature of the story, Mexico setting and doomed protagonist certainly appealed to Huston’s personal obsessions and aesthetic. During his lifetime, Huston regularly adapted challenging texts for the screen including The African Queen (1951), Moby Dick (1956), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979) and even The Bible (1966). The 76-year-old director was also a heavy drinker himself and characters struggling with alcoholism regularly show up in his films such as Moulin Rouge (1952) and Fat City (1972) while the striking Mexico location links Under the Volcano with The Unforgiven (1960) and most notably Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The Night of the Iguana (1964).
Huston’s lifelong love affair with Mexico began when he was just a young man. At age 19 he visited the country while on vacation and stayed for two years even becoming an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry. Later in life, he set up home in Mexico’s Las Caletas and while living there he began making plans to shoot Under the Volcano. Huston wisely chose to employ home-grown talent during production including actors Ignacio López Tarso, Katy Jurado, Carlos Riquelme, Emilio Fernández, José René Ruiz and he made great use of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (The Exterminating Angel , Simon of the Desert, The Night of the Iguana ). Besides pulling from a skilled pool of professionals, Huston also insisted on hiring many locals including uncredited prostitutes who portrayed the female hustlers occupying the ramshackle brothel in the film’s finale. These authentic touches give the film a disquieting realism that emphasizes the grim consequences of colonialism lingering around its rough-hewn borders.
Despite the prestigious reputation of the original text and Huston’s consummate directing skills, what makes Under the Volcano such an effective film is Albert Finney’s persuasive performance. Lots of great actors including Fredric March, Ray Milland, James Mason, Susan Hayward, Paul Newman, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor have played convincing drunks on screen but Finney’s depiction of Geoffrey Firmin is in a league of its own. He is completely immersed in his character’s booze-soaked skin. Finney shakes, sweats, stammers and stumbles through the streets of Mexico for the film’s entire 112-minute running time looking every bit of his 48-years.
There is no glamor or redemption in this role. Firmin is such a wretched character that it is difficult to muster up any compassion for his plight. We can only pity him and even that takes effort on our part. To its credit, there are very few laughs and when the film does ask us to chuckle at Firmin’s expense, the jokes leave a bitter after taste. The film’s unflinching approach to an uncomfortable topic is admirable but it makes Under the Volcano a difficult watch.
Finney is part of a generation of British actors fondly referred to as “hellraisers” by the press and fans alike. The hellraisers included Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Alan Bates and Peter O’Toole, all heavy drinkers and notorious womanizers who shook up the British stage and screen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Finney is still alive and kicking and has managed to avoid a lot of negative press probably because he rarely agrees to interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Despite Finney’s desire to keep his private life private, his 8-year marriage to actress Anouk Aimée (Lola , 8 1/2 , A Man and a Woman ) found its way into gossip columns due to the way it ended with Aimée dumping Finney and running off to Hollywood with Ryan O’Neil in 1978.
Although their relationship was reportedly already on the rocks, Finney’s nerves must have still been raw when he made Under the Volcano 6-years later because he was able to easily convey his character’s isolation and sense of betrayal. When he expresses his heartbreak it feels genuine and seems to come from some deep dark place that cries out for our sympathy and understanding. Simply put, Finney is so damn good that it is difficult to know where his performance begins and ends.
Accompanying FilmStruck’s presentation of Under the Volcano you’ll find a great selection of supplements including interviews with director John Huston and Finney’s costar, Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt , The Deep , La Cérémonie ). But if you only have time to watch one film extra, I highly recommend Notes from Under the Volcano. This hour-long documentary made by Gary Conklin (Paul Bowles in Morocco , Rufino Tamayo: The Sources of His Art , Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No ) was shot during filming and it’s fascinating to watch Albert Finney effortlessly slip in and out of character. Getting a firsthand look at a master thespian in action is a genuine treat and enriched my appreciation for his fierce and unflinching portrayal of a man who is incapable of conquering his inner demons.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for FilmStruck and published May 4, 2017