An indefatigably productive and sometimes head-scratchingly protean director and performer — did you know he was responsible for 1982’s ANNIE adaptation? — Hollywood legend John Huston nevertheless had certain recurring proclivities, one of which was bringing works of great but eccentric literary fiction to the silver screen. Whether ANNIE belongs in this category I leave to film historians to decide, but a consensus exists regarding such Huston-adapted titles as THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), WISE BLOOD(1979), and THE DEAD (1987). That last, Huston’s final film, was widely hailed as a triumph of adaptation, turning the allegedly “unfilmable” closing story in James Joyce’s Dubliners into a subtly allusive and deeply moving example of screen art.
1984’s UNDER THE VOLCANO tackles another work of relentless interiority, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel of the same name, and if it does so less triumphantly, it remains an intriguing, occasionally entrancing effort marked by at least one extraordinary performance.
“I choose death. Death is my natural habitat.” So mutters Geoffrey Fermin, the drunk and disconsolate former British Consul (given life by a magnificent Albert Finney, beating the devil’s own tattoo), to his wife and the man with whom she has cuckolded him. The three stranded Brits sit drinking as dusk deepens in Cuernavaca, Mexico on November 1st, 1938, the Day of the Dead. Lurid, laughing skull-masks festoon the public square, and thugs who aspire to be fascists hide, lurking and leering, in plain sight. Peace for our time has been declared a month before. But the shadows are lengthening.
UNDER THE VOLCANO is a film about worlds, and men, trying and finally failing to effect a careful, teetering balance between order and anarchy. What is the right dose of liquor to administer to an alcoholic attempting to steer a course between the shakes and oblivion? What is the maximum defensible amount of evil we can allow to exist in the world uncontested? Huston makes Lowry’s difficult questions his own, and asks them with his mouth full of ashes.
2/7 – 9PM
Harvard Film Archives
24 Quincy St.