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The actor Albert Finney is the Van Morrison of the cinema.  A journeyman performer who's spent his life methodically plying his craft with the very highest of skill and creativity, occasionally turning out performances with the stunning singularity of genius and truth.  As the desultory alcoholic ex-diplomat, Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano, Finney depicts the dark pit of depressive alcohol addiction and the destruction of the soul with brilliant clarity.  The film takes place over the course of one day in Firmin's miserable existence where the hope of redemption and rescue arrives  in the form of his ex-wife, Yvonne, ably depicted by 80's "it" girl actress, Jaqueline Bisset.  Firmin is so far down the drain that he initially thinks Yvonne's appearance in the dim cantina is an illusion.  He's been up all night drinking, wandering the streets observing the Day of the Dead festivities in the village with the morbid fascination of one who knows his own mortality is nigh.  Yvonne has come back to her ex-husband to try and get back together.  To try to un-ring a bell that had been firmly rung.  The symbolism of the baggage she brings is ham-fisted, but well depicted by John Huston's direction as we watch Geoffrey leading Yvonne back to his house with two village children staggering along under the weight of Yvonne's Louis Vuitton trunks.  Geoffrey dismisses the children (and the trunks) with drunken amiability, but not so with the psychic baggage between himself and his ex-wife.  It's never clear just how strong Yvonne's need to be with Geoffrey is or even why she would want to come back to him in the first place.  The forgiveness and the expression of love she needs to get and give to Geoffrey never seems to be enough to measure up to Geoffrey's own over-the-top pathos and inflated sense of injury.  But alcohol is the greatest magnifier of the small slight and the nothing insult.   Finney draws this effect with laser-like precision that is fascinating and horrible to watch.  Geoffrey Firmin isn't a mean drunk.  He's one of those Shakespeare-spouting, morose intellectual type of drunks that sits in a dark room ruminating and grinding the axe quietly and methodically.

Geoffrey shares his hacienda with his half-brother, Hugh Firmin.  We learn that the seed of Geoffrey and Yvonne's marital destruction was sewn by a one-time affair between Hugh and Yvonne. Its intimated that Geoffrey forgave this betrayal  but later, after too much time drinking and grinding his pain razor-sharp against the dark wheel of alcohol,  took away from Yvonne and shut the door on his relationship with her. Still, the three of them remain bound together, not by any sort of balm of forgiveness, but by Yvonne's and Hugh's mutual love for Geoffrey and no small amount of guilt for having wounded him with their single indiscretion.

 On this day chronicled in the film, Geoffrey is seen to be torn between his deep need to have his wife back and the siren-like call of his alcohol fueled need to punish her.  Finney's performance is extraordinary as we watch his character whipsaw back and forth between his two emotional anchors and hitting every nuanced psychic point in-between.  The three characters travel through the day as sort  of a small troupe of Grecian tragedians dropped into the middle of the Fellini-esque Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  They visit a carnival, or rather Yvonne and Hugh enjoy the festivities while Geoffrey decamps to a cantina to down a bottle with the proprietress so that he can keep himself on an even keel.  Geoffrey is at the stage where he must constantly drink just to function at the staggering drunk level. Normal behavior is out of reach forever. His two states of existence are being sober drunk and being drunk drunk.  Hard core addicts and those in recovery will recognize this state immediately and wince at Finney's dead-on portrayal.  Having fortified himself for the next half hour or so, Geoffrey  gets into some trouble on a carnival ride, but is rescued by Hugh and Yvonne.  Geoffrey, exhilarated by the experience convinces the other two that they need to make a day of it and embrace the celebrations.  They must travel by bus to the next village to watch the bull fights.


The bus ride is interrupted by a seemingly random act of violence which does nothing to ruin the idyllic time of pleasantry the three characters have at the bull fights. It's not until when Hugh, in a fit of angst and alcohol-fueled bravado, decides to participate in the fights, that things fall apart.  Geoffrey lets the Darkness descend and even with Yvonne pleading with him and promising undying fealty; he will have none of it.  The alcohol and the hate has taken over. Geoffrey is the liquor now and his last words to Yvonne are a proclamation and decision to choose the bottle over her.  His ultimate explanation being that "Hell is my natural habitat." With this Geoffrey disappears into the Countryside of Cantinas where the final denouement of the film takes place. And there really is no doubt as to where this story is going at this point, but it is this part of the film that I think is the weakest and the most old-fashioned from a modern cinematic story telling perspective.


This is not one of John Huston's great films.  Normally a film maker known more for his story telling than any great technical skill as a director, Under the Volcano, while a great tour de force for Albert Finney, falls flat as a plot driven story.  The dynamic of the love triangle is never fully formed and therefore there is a gap of believability. There are spots where just one or two extra sentences of dialogue would have solidified things and elevated the story to the level of Finney's performance.  On the other hand, Mexico looks like a Technicolor Latin Disneyland under Huston's camera work and set decoration.   The dusty village where Geoffrey lives is enticing in its quaintness and every cantina, even the infamously dangerous and vile, La Faralita, exemplifies Hemingway's  description of tavern nirvana as being "a clean, well-lighted place".  Of course, the reality is a totally different thing, but it is Huston's love of Latin culture coming through that perhaps explains his inability to add some grit to the proceedings.  I found the tiny anachronisms in the film jarring and distracting.  The plastic aviator sunglasses that Geoffrey wears throughout most of the film would have been rare if non-existent  in 1938 Mexico, and even if this were not the case, the fact that the thought was in my head while I watched was enough to take me out of the film from time to time.  There were also vehicles in the film that were not around at the time.  And then there is the waterfall of Mexican stereotypes that start with the two barefoot urchins who assist Yvonne with her bags at the beginning of the film, through a parade of travel poster depictions of Senoras and Hombres until at the end we get a group of bar toughs lifted straight out of Huston's earlier work on "The Treasure of the Sierra Madres". 

And the ending.  This is a sequence worthy of a bodice-ripper by the Bronte sisters, but with none of the gravitas their earnestness would bring to even the most ridiculous plot device. We know where this train of self destruction is headed, Huston is heavy handed in telegraphing Geoffrey's demise to us.  It is painfully slow and plays out like a film school exercise in action sequencing composed by a C-average student.  This film was made in the early 80's and this last scene exposes Huston's inability to keep up with the times.  While the ending might have been shocking, and believable in the 50's; it was likely just barely so in the 80's and presently it just plays out as embarrassingly amateurish and melodramatically stupid. However, with all that, Finney's performance is so good that you can't stop watching him, even when he is inert and lifeless in the last, poorly composed  tracking shot taking in the beautiful, snow-capped Mexican volcano juxtaposed with Geoffrey face down in a ditch.