THE DEAD (1987)

  • Director: John Huston
  • Writer: Tony Huston, based on the short story by James Joyce
  • Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Cathleen Delany, Helena Carroll, Rachael Dowling, Ingrid Craigie, Dan O’Herlihy, Marie Kean, Donal Donnelly, Sean McClory, Frank Patterson, Maria McDermottroe, Marie Hayden, Kate O’Toole, Bairbre Dowling, and Colm Meaney
  • Accolades: 1987 Tokyo International Film Festival – Special Achievement Award, 2 Oscar nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costumes), 2 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Director – John Huston, Best Supporting Female – Anjelica Huston)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, buy or rent with Amazon Video and YouTube

The Dead is fairly closely based on perhaps the best known short story by the great Irish writer, James Joyce, from his collection Dubliners. It reminds me a bit of other movies that take place mostly at one party over the course of one evening, ranging drastically from La Regle de Jeu to Can’t Hardly Wait. However, this movie is decidedly weirder from most that might fit that description. From a filmmaking perspective, its greatest claim to fame is as the last of 37 feature films directed by the great John Huston. It is from a script by his son, Tony, and co-stars his daughter, Anjelica. Huston was 80 years old and clearly in ill health at the time of production, directing the film from a wheelchair. Using a portable oxygen tank, he couldn’t speak up, so he gave directions to the cast and crew using a microphone. Huston adopted Ireland as his home for much of his later life, and his children had primarily grown up at a huge, old-timey estate in County Galway. Anjelica Huston is not faking her Irish accent here.

From the title, many might assume that The Dead is a horror story, but it really isn’t (James Joyce could not have known when writing this story in 1914 that his title would one day be un-googleable). Most of the movie centers around an Epiphany party thrown at a Dublin townhouse in 1904, hosted by two elderly sisters (Cathleen Delany and Helena Carroll) and their niece (Rachael Dowling). The “main characters,” as far as it goes, are two of the guests, Gabriel (Donal McCann) and Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston). Most of the movie is just showing us what happens at the party, none of which is super-earth shattering. It is all very told very simply, and apparently in real time. Huston does not attempt the floaty, tracking camera-work employed, for example, by Robert Altman in another period movie centering around a big party, Gosford Park. His spaces are more claustrophobic. Interactions are awkward, but cannot be escaped. At supper, all the characters crowd around the table. There is never quite enough room.

As in the original short story, thematically things take a bit of a turn once Gabriel and Gretta leave the party, taking a carriage through the ice-caked streets of mid-winter Dublin. Eventually Gretta confesses that a piece of music sung at the party reminded her of an old lover from her teenage years in Galway, who died suddenly of pneumonia when she was 17. She blames herself because she made him come out in the rain to meet her. At first, Gabriel is shocked that he was completely unaware of a huge thing in his wife’s life, but then he narrates his thoughts as he watches the snow out the window, finding it somehow life-affirming, that we will all live on as memories.

The shift at the ending is more jarring in the movie than in the story, because while the story is narrated by Gabriel throughout, here we only get to hear his thoughts at the very end. This leaves out much of the stream-of-consciousness nuance of Joyce’s original. We see Gabriel insulted by an Irish Nationalist lady (Maria McDermottroe) at the party, who derisively refers to him as a “West Briton” (i.e. a wannabe Englishman), but we don’t get his persistent worrying about the insult afterwards. In another way, that ending is more what I would want out of a Joyce adaptation, just reciting some of his ridiculously beautiful lines. “One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

For me, The Dead never quite escapes that feeling of being a short story. This is not some major night in the lives of most of its characters. There are long sequences that are just dancing, or just Freddie Malins (Donal Donnelly) upsetting his mother (Marie Kean) because he’s a drunk. Several characters float around the outside of the party without us ever learning much about them. One of these is played by Colm Meaney, in one of his earliest roles. My wife (who was sleeping for most of the time I spent watching this movie) woke up and briefly murmured “Oh, Chief O’Brien,” then went back to sleep. 

So I wasn’t left enjoying the whole of The Dead as much as I enjoyed a few individual parts, or nearly as much as I enjoy reading the original short story. But it’s very well acted and directed, and it’s fun to escape to a different place and time. John Huston passed away between completing the movie and its release, ending a career full of big adventure movies with this much smaller character piece. Today the local film school in Galway, home of Anjelica Huston’s character in the movie, is named after him.

2 thoughts on “THE DEAD (1987)

  1. The movie is really a series of vignettes for the most part until the really powerful finale with Gabriel and Gretta

    There’s so much relatable social awkwardness in this movie that I wonder if is a trait I inherited from my Irish ancestors.

    Liked by 1 person

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