The Dead (1987)

John Huston | 1hr 23min

A poignant but fitting end to an illustrious directorial career, John Huston’s adaptation of the James Joyce short story ‘The Dead’ brings the esteemed Hollywood director together with his children, Tony and Angelica Huston, in an ode to those loved ones who have passed on and who patiently wait for the living to join them. Though he was both a key influencer in some of America’s most significant genres from the noir to the western, and one of the few filmmakers to make the smooth transition from Old to New Hollywood, his final outing, an Edwardian period piece, doesn’t push many artistic boundaries so much as it breathes cinematic life into a piece of classic literature.

Elderly spinsters Kate and Julia Morkan host their annual Feast of the Epiphany dinner for family and friends every January without fail, and this year is no different. Within the ensemble of guests who come streaming through the front door is their nephew Gabriel, a teacher and book reviewer. The events that unfold through the night imply a distance between him and the other partygoers, most of all his wife, Gretta, who seems to be caught up in poetry and music recitals that transport her mind to a different time and place.

Excellent blocking all through the Dead, Huston smoothly transitioning from private to public conversations as we witness here.

There is a delicate grace to the way Huston moves his camera through the rooms of the Morkan house, wandering from private conversations to communal dances, and weaving around crowds and furniture. In one moment when Aunt Julia stands up to deliver her off-pitch rendition of the opera piece “Arrayed for the Bridal”, we track into a close-up of this once-great singer, as if to offer our pity for the damage that age has wreaked on her voice. But then, as she reaches the end of the first verse, Huston lets our attention drift from the living area into her bedroom, where a gentle montage dissolves between her accumulation of possessions. Tiny ceramic angels, embroidered messages, war medals, family photos, a rosary – there is a rich history to this woman whose warbling voice continues to ring in the background. One day, possibly quite soon, she will pass away to join those who are framed on her dresser, and yet memories of her life will be contained in these items and those people who she will leave behind.

The memorabilia of a fading life, accompanied by its frail, warbling voice.

Indeed, the melancholy recollections of those who have departed from this world plague the minds of many of Huston’s characters, and the haunting conclusiveness of mortality hanging thick in the air between them. Perhaps Gabriel’s lack of engagement with this notion is what sets him so far apart from the others, as his class hubris keeps his sights firmly focused on his material existence. Gretta, meanwhile, seems to be caught up in wistful trances throughout the evening, most of all when Mr D’Arcy, a celebrated tenor, sings “The Lass of Aughrim” to close out the night.

In picturesque cutaways to the frosty streets outside, Huston lets his snow settle all across the carriages and houses of Dublin. When Gabriel is inevitably forced to consider the memories left behind by a previous lover of his own wife, we too are moved with him, contemplating how these fresh blankets of snow preserve buried bodies like memories in a frozen chrysalis, and how close he is to joining them. As he reaches this epiphany, Huston marks the moment with a voiceover, letting us into the mind of this man at the same moment he finally lets himself in.

“Like everything around me, this solid world itself, which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lays buried. Falling faintly through the universe, and faintly falling like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Peering through the “veil”, so to speak, as Gabriel contemplates those souls which have departed this world.

As he looks wistfully through the curtains at his hotel window, Huston conjures up images of a snowy moor, a ruined church, and a frozen cemetery. These evocative pictures of deathly stillness effectively turn what was already a stirring passage lifted straight from James Joyce’s short story, into something transcendent. As a mild flurry of snow settles on the mortal Earth below and brings light to its dark shapes, this piece of visual poetry also poignantly closes out the career of a truly inspired filmmaker, reminding us how close Huston still remains to the living through his art.

A transcendent closing montage, snow falling from a dark night sky “upon all the living and the dead.”

The Dead is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.