UNDER THE VOLCANO, a film by JOHN HUSTON, 1984 (Shock DVD)

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UNDER THE VOLCANO, a film by JOHN HUSTON, 1984 (Shock DVD)

There are two anecdotes -- both possibly apocryphal -- which I remember about the life of Malcolm Lowry, the British author of the terrifying novel Under the Volcano.

The first is that when he was child his father took him to a medical museum and showed him the disgusting and disfigured body parts of those who had died of various venereal diseases. I guess that comes from the "that'll learn ya if you aren't careful" school of parenting.

It would be enough to drive anyone mad or to drink -- and that is certainly what happened to Lowry who had a heroic alcohol intake in later life.

The other story I recall is that when he was writing Under the Volcano -- the story of the final day of an alcoholic ex-consul in Mexico -- he had a small place on the edge of a bay (in Mexico? Or Canada?). Twice due to his drunken carelessness the house burned down and both times he lost the sole manuscript of the book, so he grabbed yet another bottle and started all over again.

On the opposite shore of the bay however was a Shell oil refinery and at night it sent flames high in the sky. And the letter "S" on its illuminated sign had burned out . . . so at night the drunk and depressed Lowry would look across at the flames and see written in the sky . . .

Under the Volcano is a grim book by any measure and it is set against the Mexican Day of the Dead in the last days before World War II as the main character Geoffrey Firmin (played here by Albert Finney in an Oscar-nominated part) deals with various inner and outer demons, among them the betrayal of his wife (the glistening if miscast Jacqueline Bisset) with his half-brother (Anthony Andrews).

But it is more than that: Firman is a man reduced to alcoholic visions where the real and imagined world merge, and much as he might try to grope his way towards his wife again (which she seems to want) he is incapable of emotional attachment.

Finney is exceptional in this faithful but flawed adaptation by Huston. He doesn't parody or even act out drunken behaviour but rather inhabits it as he lurches from embarrassing himself at an elegant function to crashing face down in the street or stumbling into a toxic local bar which will be his ultimate undoing.

Unfortunately the rest of the cast are weak: Bisset simply cannot act (she was the Liz Hurley of her generation, the notable exception being her appearance in Truffaut's Day for Night) and Andrews simply walks the same territory he did as Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, just with more sobriety.

But this is Finney's show -- and to some extent Huston's -- and although Lowry's novel was always going to unfilmable by virtue of so much internal narrative, here is a raw account of man for whom alcohol in not just killing him and deadening his senses, but ironically keeping him alive.

This is a dark ride. 

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