DVD Review: Under the Volcano

The Criterion Collection
Movie •••½ Picture •••• Sound ••• Extras ••••

In this stripped-down 1984 adaptation of the Malcolm Lowry novel, Albert Finney gives one of cinema's greatest performances. As a dissolute, alcoholic British diplomat stranded emotionally in Mexico - bitter at himself and a beautiful but corrupt world - he's brilliant. John Huston's taut, vivid direction frames Finney well enough to make this difficult story not only watchable but engrossing.

The picture quality is superb, with myriad colors and complex lighting effects, particularly in the opening dawn of the Day of the Dead and the closing sequence in a hellish cantina/whorehouse. The mono sound is mostly very good with music and effects, but odd things tend to happen with the dialogue. I'm not sure whether it's sometimes slightly distorted and unfocused or whether it's mixed so that a character in the background can't be clearly understood.

While the commentary by the film's producers offers more background than scene-specific detail, it's still pretty entertaining. A vintage making-of featurette meanders but does offer some creative insights, and an affectionate new interview with Jacqueline Bisset (whose own work in the film was a career highlight) offers some nifty tidbits about Huston. The director also appears in an audio discussion in which he politely skewers his French interviewer, and there's an interesting set of select-scene commentaries by screenwriter Guy Gallo.

The major extra in this two-disc set, however, is Volcano (1975), a well-researched feature-length documentary on Lowry's life - a downward spiral somewhat broken by the creation and publication of his one major work. It's rather eerie to hear Richard Burton, himself famously alcoholic, playing Lowry reciting his writings - especially since Burton would later be briefly considered for the lead in Huston's film. [NR] English Dolby Digital mono; letterboxed (1.78:1) and anamorphic widescreen; two dual-layer discs.

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