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Murder Slim Review: UNDER THE VOLCANO

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Many people only know John Huston purely by his movies from the classical Hollywood era. He directed AFRICAN QUEEN, THE MISFITS, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE. That's some list of great movies, so you can't criticise people for fixating on that. But by concentrating on Huston from 1930-1961, people miss a lot of his career. There is more to discover.

John Huston can be hailed as a boozy anti-hero who brought us the line: "I prefer to think God is not dead, just drunk." He deserves kudos for making it to aged 81, after a life of hard drinking, gambling and even the odd bankruptcy. Huston was a great storyteller but also a damn stubborn guy who believed "the directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world."

That stubbornness helped with UNDER THE VOLCANO. Malcolm Lowry's book runs at over 400 pages, and despites its critical acclaim it was considered unfilmable. It's a sprawling and often stream-of-consciousness view of the booze-added life of "The Consul". Largely written when Lowry was in one of his brief sober spells, UNDER THE VOLCANO doesn't grab the reader through 400+ pages nearly as much as JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT... but then what does? Lowry could write almost as well as he could drink, so how could anyone condense so many interesting pages into a two-hour movie?

Under The Volcano Still Image 1---Under The Volcano Book Cover---Under The Volcano Still Image 2

Huston's selections for the movie annoyed ardent Lowry's fans. Huston consciously concentrates on Lowry's alter-ego (Geoffrey Firmin) at his lowest, spearing in on the loneliness Huston was so fascinated by.

Firman is the British consul to Mexico in the run-up to World War II. He's a raging alcoholic and has been abandoned except for a couple of servants. Even they're sick of buying booze for the guy, and Firman is reduced to hiding booze a la THE LOST WEEKEND. It's laughable when he discovers his hiding places for his rum... only to find out he's already drank that stash before.

Does that destroy the seriousness of UNDER THE VOLCANO? I don't think so. The movie doesn't touch the depth of the novel but the end result is powerful and memorable. Huston would have killed himself making an overview of the whole of Lowry's novel. Yeah, Firmin is reduced to a drunk spouting more shit and bile than wisdom... but those wise moments strike a chord each time. When Firman briefly tunes in (particularly as his lost love reappears) there's the glimpse of his intelligence and clarity. He came across as a rambling drunk to many reviewers, but listen carefully and there's much more.

Lowry actually made it out of Mexico and lived a while longer but succumbed to booze and pills when he was 47. Huston captures the eerie fixation with death that fills UNDER THE VOLCANO, tapping into the creepy Mexican "Day of the Dead" vibe. The atmosphere creeps up on you... subtle but effective.

Check out some more stuff about Lowry... he's a fascinating fuck-up. On the Criterion DVD release, there's an excellent British documentary about Lowry. This comes complete with the revelation that the source of his problems was often his "tiny penis". If you don't laugh at a deadly serious English narrator solemnly intoning those words then you're a tough nut to crack. VOLCANO - which you can watch below - is another good 'un and was nominated for an Oscar.

Huston has never been known as an immensely stylish filmmaker. He admitted it himself in an interview on UNDER THE VOLCANO, saying: "I'm told there is a Huston style; if so I'm not aware of it. I just make the film to its own requirements." A little false modesty, maybe? Here, again, is a guy who knows where to put a camera. If MALTESE FALCON, SIERRA MADRE and AFRICAN QUEEN are seen as his early classics, FAT CITY, UNDER THE VOLCANO and WISE BLOOD should be seen as his later ones.

UNDER THE VOLCANO portrays only a small part of a very fine novel, but it's a must-see. As much as people rave about Albert Finney's performance (and it is superb), it's nice when people praise Huston for pitching the movie just right. Every now and then, the director doesn't get the praise he/she deserves. UNDER THE VOLCANO is one of those movies.

Review by Steve Hussy