Day of the Dead

Six images from UNDER THE VOLCANO ~



Love how Huston’s director credit appears over a lookalike skull. But then, ALL skulls look a bit like John Huston, just as all monkeys do.


The signature image, Albert Finney’s shades. Malcolm Lowry’s book was often described as “unfilmable,” and I’m not sure Huston found a way in. A drunken novel about a drunk could either be a hallucinatory nightmare vision or an actor’s tour-de-force. The movie isn’t quite either, although it creates some real terror at the end in a Lynchian brothel (complete with dwarf who looks like a matter-reduced Anthony Quinn).


This is from the period of Albert Finney’s career where I find him rather hard to look at, with his juvenile lead hair and collapsing face, his shouty delivery and spasming countenance, a collapsing meringue galvanized by random electrical impulses. Little wonder that movies like THE DRESSER had to be devised to incorporate Finney’s fractious twitching and bellowing (he quotes King Lear in this one, too).


His drunken shamble and fall is impressive though (wonder how many times Huston made him do it?).

Huston was known for his inspirational whispers, little asides to individual actors right before he rolled the camera. One time he advised an overacting thesp, “You know, the other night I was so drunk I didn’t even know it,” thereby reducing the subsequent performance to a more reasonable scale. Finney, on the other hand, plays his role like a man who most definitely knows he’s drunk — but he’s so drunk he thinks he can disguise it, speaking in the careful, over-enunciated fashion immortalized in WITHNAIL & I in the line “Honestly, I’ve only had a few ales.”


“You’ve got to be drunk to appreciate the beauty of an old woman playing dominoes with a chicken.”

22 Responses to “Day of the Dead”

  1. That skull DOES look like Huston. He probably was aware of it. I have never read Lowry’s book(which along with Gadda’s THAT AWFUL MESS ON THE VIA MERULANA constitute my present holy grail) so it might well be unfilmable but Huston’s movie is extremely moody and tense. It reminded me of Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA(which has been compared to Lowry). That movie is the most autobiographical and personal of one of cinema’s greatest alcoholics(No. 1 seems to be Ozu Yasujiro). It’s also a rare chance to see Gabriel Figueroa shoot in colour.

    UNDER THE VOLCANO began a late period redemption for Huston, after this PRIZZI’S HONOUR and THE DEAD.

    Dia de los Muertos(which is a two day event) was to have been a central piece in Eisenstein’s unfinished QUE VIVA MEXICO and seems to be the only sequence available in full. It’s one of Eisenstein’s best sequences, the expressionism anticipating IVAN THE TERRIBLE.

  2. givenchance Says:

    aha-ha!! laughed a lot because of the very first picture!! really funny “face”!!!!

  3. John Huston was the only actor in a Planet of the Apes film who still looked like himself in makeup. Although there’s a test of Edward G Robinson wearing a less overtly ape-like makeup, and you can still recognise him.

    It’s great to see Katy Jurado and Emilio Fernandez in the film, also tying it in to Peckinpah (and a whole lot more). And Figueroa’s photography is a joy.Jackie Bisset and Anthony Andrews seem slightly at sea though.

    The shadow of war hanging over the alcoholic protagonist reminded me of Hangover Square (book, not film) but it’s somewhat more thematically coherent than that odd, wonderful potboiler.

  4. The first picture is the classic Catrina image from Day of the Dead carnival imagery. It began as a caricature of an upper class mexican lady trussed up in a skull…the message being “all fancy dressers will die like the rest of us”. You could have eaten sugar catrinas in Cuernavaca if you happened to be in Mexico the past two days.

  5. “…let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; let her laugh at that.” ~ Hamlet.

    Having just enjoyed Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, I’m reminded of his last work, the TV film Memento Mori.

    “Remember you must die…”

    “I don’t think I’m in danger of forgetting that, thank you very much!”

  6. How is the Clayton film?

  7. Watched Bunuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS last week for the first time. Figueroa’s camerawork in it is outstanding, as is the film as a whole. Frightening and disturbing, still it possesses a power, a rawness that is undeniable. Huston’s love affair with Mexico is well-documented, so it only makes sense that he would turn his creative energies toward making a film there so late in what proved to be a very productive career. I personally believe Huston’s late-period redemption began with WISE BLOOD ( with a bump in the road between it and VOLCANO with the mainstream ANNIE), and I find it more consistently engaging than Lowry’s filmed adaptation, but I still find VOLCANO a pretty satisfying experience. I’ve read where some have had a problem with those sunglasses, since they look too modern to be of the period (pre-WWII), hard for me to say one way or the other. And it was John’s son Danny who directed the opening credit sequence with the skeleton marionettes dangling in space, kind of a neat place to begin one’s career.

  8. david wingrove Says:

    The one jarring note for me in UNDER THE VOLCANO was the overly theatrical (well, let’s be frank, hammy) acting by Albert Finney. It’s the sort of barnstorming that has ‘O-S-C-A-R’ written all over it in bright red letters.

    There were moments when I had to shut my eyes and imagine Dirk Bogarde playing the role, directed by Joseph Losey – as was the plan. That strikes me as a far more satisfactory arrangement, and must go down as one of the great ‘if onlies’ of cinema.

    In contrast to Finney, the gorgeous and criminally underrated Jacqueline Bisset is restrained and wholly convincing. It just shows you what she could do on those (very rare) occasions she was given an actable script!

    As for the novel being ‘unfilmable’? It’s one of the most hallucinatory
    and intensely ‘visual’ experiences in 20th century prose fiction and, as such, a natural for the screen. A bit like Durrell’s THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, which is also said to be unfilmable…but only because it was filmed so badly!

  9. Losey and Bogarde seem like a nice choice, but if it’s hallucinatory and visual we’re after… maybe Welles? Or Ray? Or, stepping reluctantly out of Wisconsin for a moment, maybe Peckinpah, whose relationship with politics, alcohol and Mexico seems comparable in some ways to the character’s.

    Clayton’s Memento Mori is visually restrained (he was ill when he made it) but beautifully written and played by its elderly cast (there’s hardly anybody under 70 in it).

    Wise Blood is incredible, maybe Huston’s best attempt at the literary film that transcends its origins. I love The Dead too, because it seems such a grace note to end on.

  10. I love the book, as I love Wise Blood. Individual sentences (“Someone threw a dead dog after him down the ravine”, “glare-blue suit”, “the shadow following him from tree to tree”) stick in my mind nearly twenty years after I last read either of them. So I suppose it’s understandable that I rather dislike both films. Finney’s not got the awful self-awareness that Geoffrey Firmin is cursed with (or rather, he’s not good at showing it) and apart from the audaciously brilliant casting, Wise Blood the movie is horribly ABOVE its characters and setting in the way that Huston so often is, seated on his directors’ chair like a grinning, manipulative demon, thinking “What fools these mortals be!”

    In fact, it was only at Death’s door that Huston lost that awful pretentious self-importance, and recognised his own mortality, and The Dead (though again not fit to tie the boots of its source material) manages to rise above itself and create some moments of real truth and beauty.

    A few years back somebody I know informed me that he was working on adapting a feature drama based on Ray Bradbury’s Blue Water, White Whale, with the current rights holder. It turned out that the latter was The Exterminator himself, the late Robert Ginty. No sign of that film ever getting made, but I wish somebody would, if only to capture something of the real Huston, who was – it seems – not a million miles away from being Noah Cross.

  11. I love Alex North’s score. And Jackie Bissett seeming “at sea” is perfect for the part. A very solid Huston and first-rate Finney.

  12. I’ve still to read Bradbury on Huston, absurdly enough. The last I read was Death is a Lonely Business. High time I rectified that.

    Moby Dick is nearly a great movie.

    As for Huston nearly being Noah Cross, the “capable of ANYTHING” part does seem quite Hustonesque. His favourite pasttime in mexico was supposedly the local version of Russian roulette: cock a pistol (fully loaded) and throw it at the ceiling. When it hits the ceiling, and again when it hits the floor, it stands an excellent chance of going off and killing anybody in the room, and even anybody passing the window. So much less self-centered than the Russian kind.

    As they say in Mexico, “God sides with the bad when they outnumber the good.”

  13. Hangover Square a potboiler?? Shame on you.

  14. Christopher Says:

    Its not uncommon to see the mexicans down here,pickincking in the Cemetaries on dia de los muertos..bringin’ grub to the dead..

  15. I love Hamilton’s novel dearly, but I think it’s half-pulp, half-literature. None the worse for that, of course. So potboiler is my affectionate term. Slaves of Solitude is a masterpiece though.

    I like that line in Under the Volcano, “You don’t want to make the path to heaven slippery with tears.”

  16. I’ve read and enjoyed the Lowry, albeit too long ago to remember the book with any specificity. The only part of the movie I’ve seen is the “No socks !” portion on YouTube.

    I will say, though, that when I read the Lowry I kept being reminded of “Night of the Iguana” — drunks from the U.S. in Mexico in the ’30s, and all that. Which makes for a nice tie to the earlier, Huston-directed “Iguana” movie.

  17. Michael Caine in his acting masterclass (darling) advised that the best way to play drunk is to play drunk trying as hard as possible to be sober. You’re spot on about Richard E Grant Withnailing that.

    Although hammy drunk is great fun too. Finney always gives entertaining drunk; “Stop! That! Train!” and “Towel. TOWEL TOWEL!” from The Dresser are lovely moments. Trevor Howard is someone who always seemed on the edge of drunk in everything he did. Apart from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End where he gives the impression of being blootered the entire time.

  18. Oh I do agree with you about The Slaves of Solitude. Why has no one ever filmed it? Mr Thwaites would be a great part for anyone – Albert Finney, even? “Like the wise old owl, I bides my time.” One of the great monsters of English literature.

  19. Thwaites, a Duke of Hell, is the most filmic element — I think a lot of the rest would defy effective visualization. But he might make it ll worthwhile. “Like the Scotsman… of yore.”

    My friend Lawrie on Trevor Howard: “Ah, lovely Trevor, never sober.” His wife used to call the studio in the mornings: “Is my husband there? Oh good. Just checking.” Because obviously he had never made it home. And there’s a story about him jimmying the lock on a massive birdcage in the casino at Cannes after he got bored watching Selznick gamble. The whole place had to be locked down while men chased exotic birds with nets and Howard guffawed in the centre of it all.

    Night of the Iguana is a good comparison, and makes me think that Burton would’ve been good in Volcano — he always seemed authentically tortured, even when giving his worst performances, so that would’ve come easily.

  20. cute! very cute I must day. i know that Mexicans have a day of all dead. it is liek a tradition to celebrate the holiday. i think it is somewhere like Halloween but with another name….

  21. I think the Mexicans take their holiday a bit more seriously — although they clearly have a lot of fun too.

  22. I think we all take this holiday as we wanna take it, there are not serious or vice versa attitudes
    to take it roperly the only thing we are to know is it’s history

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