Saturday, July 7, 2012

#410: Under the Volcano

(John Huston, 1984)

If Wise Blood is Huston late-era artistic manifesto and The Dead is his passing of the torch, Under the Volcano is his catharsis, the final unloading of the themes that had bound him for five decades as a filmmaker. Fittingly, he chose Mexico for his grand statement, the site of arguably his greatest movie, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. But equally perfect is his choice to cast Albert Finney in the lead role. Finney is both the perfect stand in for Huston's father's characters from his earlier films and a great actor - one of the greatest, if I may say so. His performance here is flawless, which says a lot considering the fact that he is onscreen for nearly all of the film's running time and drunk - probably the most difficult physical state to play convincingly - for even more of it.

Like Huston's other two literary adaptations in the final years of his career, Under the Volcano was long considered unadaptable because of the vast stretches of inner-dialog. Yet these are almost always the most interesting adaptations to see because a lack of any clear path to the screen forces a screenwriter and director to make conscious cinematic decisions to steer the film away from its original prose. Under the Volcano is partially appealing in this regard because of its economy of scale, as the film slices out characters and more complex themes from the source text. But it's mostly notable because of the way the novel has been finessed into Huston's oeuvre and made his own. The obvious metaphor of the titular volcano is the brewing global crisis of World War II, but here the spectre is more clearly death, particularly self-destruction. As Finney's character hurtles towards his fate, the themes of the film and his final moments become one, and the burden of a career wrestling with the greatest questions in cinema is unloaded in the rain.

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