“Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”
If all port would be claret if it could, every drunk would be Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist of Malcolm Lowry’s “semi-autobiographical” novel — and John Huston’s film — Under the Volcano. As doomed and as ghastly as Firmin may seem, to anyone who has been what I would call a serious drinker, his story is rather the opposite of a cautionary tale.
Clearly, Lowry suffered from delusions similar to Geoffrey’s (the “semi-autobiographical” tag is fitting), and his novel suffers from the superhuman task of grafting a Joycean piling layers of physical detail as a kind of rival universe of words onto the delirious ravings of a booze-sodden brain. The degree to which language can tolerate abstraction was Lowry’s biggest impediment. Then there is the quite natural reaction against the unpleasantness of being witness to the disintegration of a man’s mind (we are well beyond considerations for his poor body). All this militates against whatever literary value Lowry’s novel has, which is considerable. Ultimately, his contribution was to have strained to its very limits the tolerance of words for communicating alcohol’s assault on the cerebral cortex.
In 1984, John Simon wrote: “Yet why does this man drink? The novel offers only a few feeble, disingenuous, and misleading hints, the foremost of which is: ‘Even almost bad poetry is better than life, the muddle of voices might have been saying, as, now, he drank half his drink.’ In other words, this is yet another of those tiresome works (e.g., Morgan!, King of Hearts, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in which craziness, drug addiction, or alcoholism is made out to be braver, truer, finer than sober, sane adherence to an allegedly corrupt world drained of all decency and nobility. Tendentious rubbish!”
What the film shows us is the near-tragic downfall of a once loving, generous human being, worthy of love and friendship. The only thing that keeps me from condemning Albert Finney’s performance as Geoffrey is the knowledge that all dipsomaniacs are not created equal. Certainly Huston, a lifelong drinker, knew this. There are some drunks who can appear reasonably sober, walking and speaking normally, and yet can have a blood-alcohol level of 25 percent or more. I have seen this myself. But there are others who react dramatically to even small doses of alcohol, staggering around and slurring their speech. Since Firmin, in the novel, undergoes gradations of intoxication and can function reasonably well in society (even when his BAC was probably through the roof), Albert Finney had to find a way of showing those gradations in his performance. That he manages all this is a stupendous achievement.
Huston’s film makes it abundantly clear that Firmin is determinedly self-destructive. His love for a woman and a brother, neither of whom he can forgive for betraying him, doesn’t restrain him from punishing them by allowing them to watch him destroy himself. Perhaps it would outrage some of Lowry’s fans if I were to suggest that one of the weakest passages in the novel, and in the film, is the last, in which a white horse branded with the number seven appears outside the bar in which Geoffrey has been steadily drinking mezcal. Policemen grow suspicious of his interest in the horse and question him. When they search him, they find a packet of Yvonne’s letters and confiscate them. They accuse him of being a spy. When Geoffrey becomes angry and demands the return of the letters, one of the policemen shoots him. He falls in the mud and mutters, “Christ, this is a dingy way to die.” Huston, or his scenarist Guy Gallo, invents the death of Yvonne, trampled by the fleeing white horse. Hugh holds her in his arms. Then the camera rises above this scene of destruction to give us one last look at the volcano, Popocatepetl. It is the best that they could’ve made of Geoffrey’s last thoughts, as he lay dying.