The Dead

When the late John Huston was filming The Dead, he almost certainly knew that is would be his last film. How else to explain the elegiac majesty of this very small movie, the wry feeling of finality?

Actually, death has played a major role in Huston’s films since the beginning—for the most part, as just another absurd event in the accident of existence. (In The Man Who Would Be King, Sean Connery and Michael Caine find themselves snowbound and freezing in the Himalayas; as certain death approaches, they laugh wildly, which causes an avalanche, forming a snow bridge that carries them to their next adventure.)

Living was the dicey part, though Huston’s crew of adventurers managed to pull themselves together well enough for that. For them, facing death was one more way of making their journey more interesting.

In The Dead, the James Joyce story that Huston wanted to film for years, there is no great physical undertaking, as in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or Moby Dick. Rather the movie is the account of a festive family dinner on a cold Dublin night in 1904, and the brief aftermath of the dinner, when a husband (Donal McCann) and wife (Anjelica Huston) wrestle with a painful memory—revived for her, heard for the first time by him.

The opening shot of the movie shows the street and the family house; snow falls outside, but through the windows we can see the glow of warmth inside, see the shadows of bodies moving past in dance, and hear the lilt of the music. This beautiful shot suggests the difference between outward and inner reality, and Huston guides the film from the soothing warmth of the dinner to the cool blue light of the final scene, when the husband and wife, so charming and responsible during the gathering, go on a spiritual search of themselves.

It is a quiet, subtle film; very little that is conventionally dramatic happens in its 83 minutes. The dinner sequences, in the soft rosiness of Fred Murphy’s cinematography, are full of minor incident: songs, recitations, the carving of a goose and the declaiming of a toast.

The dinner is not the only family affair going on in the film. Tony Huston, the director’s son, wrote the screenplay; Anjelica Huston previously worked for her father in Prizzi’s Honor.

Anjelica Huston and Donal McCann are superb, as is every member of the Irish ensemble. Particular praise, though, to Donal Donnelly, as the nephew whose drunkenness cannot hide a good heart; Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delaney, as the sweet aunts who host the party; and Dan O’Herlihy, the veteran actor who plays the grand old man of “the other persuasion” (he’s a Protestant).

This film is one of those delicate works of art in which every little moment seems to carry an old master’s touch. Some images are unforgettable, such as Anjelica Huston standing on a stairway, listening to a song as her husband observes, apart and alone; or McCann watching snowflakes swirling around a lamppost like a gathering of memories. John Huston knew just how to tell his last story, and The Dead is an exquisite winter’s tale.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

The film is an example of a significant director who had the chance to go out on a just-exactly-right note. It is a challenge to write a newspaper review and try to convey in 530 words or so an outline of a career and an appreciation of the new movie, but every once in a while you have to hunker down and get it done. I feel pretty good about this one. The Dead is my #1 film for 1987, as arranged in my list here.

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