Of course, despite his early training as both a fine painter in Paris and writer (notably, German-American iconoclast H. L. Mencken bought two of his early stories for his popular magazine American Mercury), Huston never considered himself an auteur and virtually all of his greatest films are adaptations of popular novels, including his last three films: Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano, and The Dead (1987). Personally, my favorite Huston film is his almost sadistically sardonic Flannery O'Connor adaptation Wise Blood, which feels like it was directed by a young rebellious anti-Hollywood auteur and not an old golden age studio filmmaker that was in his 70s. Aside from being unquestionably my second favorite Huston flick, Under the Volcano is the film that I regard as the director’s most overtly personal and auteur orientated cinematic work, even if lead actor Albert Finney’s true tour-de-force performance is indubitably the most potent and memorable aspect of the entire film (notably, Huston would state of the actor’s performance, “I think it's the finest performance I have ever witnessed, let alone directed”). In fact, Finney’s performance is so great as a jovially nihilistic alcoholic (ex)consul that many people seem to believe that the actor was actually thoroughly shit-faced during the filming, which he most certainly was not.
The film begins the night before the Day of the Dead and Geoffrey spends most of the evening strolling around in the dark in black sunglasses while a stray dog that he lovingly feeds follows him around town. The only local that Geoffrey has any sort of truly meaningful friendship with that involves actual deep conversations is a charming old Mestizo chap named Dr. Vigil (Ignacio López Tarso), who may be a man of science but he seems to be just as supremely superstitious as every other Mexican in the area. Indeed, when the protagonist states, “Only in Mexico is death an occasion for laughter,” Dr. Vigil unwittingly illustrates the innate difference in terms of mindsets between Mexicans and ungodly Anglo-Saxons by replying, “On the Day of the Dead, when their spirits come back to us…the road from heaven must be made – made easy…and not slippery with tears.” Of course, being a perpetually drunk nihilist of sorts who is fed up with everything about his life except alcohol, Geoffrey is not exactly your typical Anglo as reflected in remarks like, “How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” Likewise, when a friend of Dr. Vigil describes the plot of Karl Freund’s classic Maurice Renard adaptation Mad Love (1935) aka The Hands of Orlac and how a character in the film named Stephen Orlac becomes extremely upset and sorry that the new hands he received in a transplant are responsible for killing people against his will, Geoffrey remarks with a certain poetic confidence, “There are things for which one cannot apologize,” which ultimately prove to be weighty words if considered in the context of the romantic betrayal that his (ex)wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) committed against him. Naturally, as the losing party of a bizarre love triangle involving two much younger and more attractive individuals, Geoffrey is consumed with a sort of undying sense of despair that seems to be reminding him that death is not too far away.
When Yvonne unexpectedly arrives at a bar where the protagonist is telling a dubious story about how he was the commander of a ship named S.S. Samaritan during World War I and how he received a prestigious medal for capturing an enemy ship, even though he was also court-martialed for ostensibly incinerating seven German officers in a furnace, Geoffrey literally cannot believe his eyes upon seeing her and he only realizes it is really her and not a hallucination after continuing to tell his story and taking a second hard look in what is indubitably a brilliant Hustonian moment that demonstrates that the director has a good grasp of the pathetic perpetual delirium that is the dipsomaniacal mind. While one would expect that a man that prayed to the Mother Mary to bring his estranged wife back would immediately engage in a long, passionate, and otherworldly orgasmic love session with their estranged beloved within minutes, if not seconds, of being reunited with her, Geoffrey is largely evasive and does not do much more than awkwardly kiss her, even though Yvonne gets somewhat aggressive and forces him to get in bed with her. While Geoffrey joins Yvonne in bed, he cannot seem to restore the love and affection he once had for her and soon finds an excuse to exit the room so that he can get even drunker. Needless to say, as the films progresses, Geoffrey only gets all the more intoxicated and, in turn, irrational and belligerent, among other things. Rather unfortunately, like most addicts, Geoffrey has unwittingly accursed his love ones and will ultimately bring them down with him in what is ultimately one of the most tragically anti-romantic endings in cinema history.
Undoubtedly, while watching Huston's film, I could not help but recall an excerpt from C.G. Jung's imperative text Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) where he wrote, “I have a Red Indian friend who is the governor of a pueblo. When we were once speaking confidentially about the white man, he said to me: ‘We don't understand the whites; they are always wanting something—always restless—always looking for something. What is it? We don't know. We can't understand them. They have such sharp noses, such thing, cruel lips, such lines in their faces. We think they are all crazy.’” Indeed, Jung's words describe how I assume that the Mexicans felt about the protagonist in Huston's film, as the character more or less exemplifies the restless white man stereotype to an almost transcendental degree, but of course it somewhat makes perfect sense when one considers that he suffers from arguably Faustian man's greatest and most debilitating vice: alcoholism. Notably, Jung believed that chronic dipsomania was largely a spiritual affliction that could only be adequately cured if the addict had a life-changing “vital spiritual experience” that involved the alcoholic replacing the addiction with a strong religious conviction, hence the tendency for ex-addicts to become born-again Christians. Certainly, if there is anything more disturbing than the film's protagonist's alcoholism, it is his all-consuming sense of defeatism and cynicism, hence why he was doomed to die drunk in the mud like a pig. Of course, the worst aspect of this tragic conclusion is that, like many drunks, the protagonist never becomes aware of the fact that he unwittingly dooms the person he loves most to a similarly lowly fate. Surely, I cannot think of another film that is as subtle yet blunt in terms of depicting the decidedly deleterious effects of alcoholism as Under the Volcano, which is thankfully never plagued by any phony preaching or proselytizing. On the other hand, although the film is quite empathetic toward its accursed alcoholic protagonist, I would probably refraining from recommending it to anyone that attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.