The Dead, the film, feels like a classic novel. But that should come as no surprise. For writer/director John Huston the written word was often a source of inspiration, and for his last film he turned to James Joyce’s final short story in Dubliners, The Dead. A family collaboration of sorts, Huston directed his daughter Anjelica while also writing the script with his son Tony. Huston directed The Dead while in a wheelchair and mostly confined to an oxygen tent. That Huston would tackle a movie exploring the transience of life on earth while he was dying from emphysema gives this film greater appeal still.
- Director: John Huston
- Writer: James Joyce, Tony Huston
- Cast: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Cathleen Delany, Helena Carroll, Rachael Dowling, Donal Donnelly, Ingrid Craigie, Marie Kean
Nothing big happens in The Dead. The film lives in the dialogue, as the characters are even-keeled and spend their time breathing life into Joyce’s words. Rich with nuanced interaction, it’s a film of gestures and glances. Huston is an expert at camera placement and framing, so when characters give musical performances Huston’s camera resists the temptation to draw attention to itself.
Set in Dublin in 1904, Gabriel (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) attend an annual holiday party. Anjelica, working with a subdued character, is amazing as she embraces the narrative’s minimalism. At the end of the gathering, Gabriel catches sight of Gretta deeply affected by the singing of a song called “The Lass of Aughrim”. The story and this song serve as a buildup to a conversation held by Gretta and Gabriel where she reveals that a boy from her younger days used to sing the same song to her. Her description of this boy and what he meant to her is poetic and genuine, although it also disturbs Gabriels thoughts. When she falls asleep,the film with Gabriel’s voice-over as he reflects on death and love. He wonders whether he’s ever loved Gretta as much as he could have, since he operates mostly as a rationale human being. In private, Gabriel compares life to snow, as it “falls faintly through the universe, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” The film – much like A Prairie Home Companion – is a film by a dying man about the transient nature of existence.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
Your review makes note of Huston’s fidelity to the source material by quoting directly, and by providing a background on what conditions the film was shot, which is great, though it’s fair to say films shouldn’t come with footnotes. I have not read The Dubliners, but by providing such an example, I trust that “the film follows the whole story with almost complete fidelity.” I think you are correct in stating that most of the film is a prologue to the final scene where Gretta opens up to her husband about a story from her youth. The fact that it comes unexpectedly and with the authenticity that it does, makes you want to re-watch all the subtle indications that led up to it. Few films that make me think deeply about how fleeting life is in the grand scheme of things, The Dead is one of them.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like ? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: In a Lonely Place
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on John Huston’s The Dead this week, he now has 284 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.