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STUDIO: Lion’s Gate
RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes
Huston wrestles Joyce into awesome submission.
Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Dan O’Herlihy, Donal Donnelly
Directed by John Huston
John Huston takes the most famous short story from James Joyce’s The Dubliners, about a turn-of-the-century (the previous one) dinner party in upper-middle class Dublin, that consists of little more than pleasant chatting and eating, and delivers a film that is rich, subtle and quite sublime.
“One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”
So begins the speech that ends The Dead, John Huston’s final film, and thinking about the meaning of those words I can’t help but conclude that Huston got to have his cake and eat it too. Mortally ill while directing the film, Huston certainly seemed in full glory. The Dead may not get the love of some of Huston’s bigger classics, but that’s more a testament to just how “big” his bigger classics are than how good The Dead is (incredibly good is the answer).
Talk about classics. Huston has the kind of film legend resume that must make current directors feel like slitting their wrists. We gush, rightly so, over what great first features directors like Wes Anderson, Duncan Jones or Rian Johnson had. Huston’s first feature was The Maltese Falcon. The Maltese motherfucking Falcon, man. First feature.
Huston also had the kind of career longevity that only a handful of filmmakers are lucky enough pull off. Released in 1987, The Dead hit theaters after Huston had already passed away, and it is a bit of a departure from the rest of his oeuvre. Known for stories about bold, often dangerous men (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), The Dead finds Huston being soft and subtextual. No guns. No boxing. No loot. No adventure. Yet the film also finds Huston doing what he did best – character. Even when his films got big (The Man Who Would Be King) or story heavy (The Asphalt Jungle) they were always sharp character studies. Huston was often at his best when he went small (The Misfits, Fat City) and I don’t think he ever went smaller than The Dead. The story is so slight that on paper it barely seems like a story at all.
It is 1904. Two elderly sisters are hosting an annual dinner party for the Feast of the Epiphany (symbolism on Joyce’s part, as epiphanies figure heavily in the ending). There are numerous guests, including but not limited to – a famous singer, a lovable drunk, a scholar, an Irish Nationalist, and the party’s lone Protestant, Mr. Browne (played by none other than Robocop’s Old Man, Dan O’Herlihy). Our central characters are Gretta and Gabriel Conroy (Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann). They are a happy couple, yet a romantic poem recited at the party triggers an old memory back into Gretta’s mind that leads us to the film’s climactic moment – if anything in the film can be called “climactic.”
The film is somewhat Altmanesque, Gosford Park minus the murder and judgment. We meander through the party, catching snippets of various conversations, enjoying a slow immersion into the world our characters inhabit as they discuss music, poetry, social matters and politics. This likely sounds dull as hell, and I suppose it may be to many viewers, but to me the conversation practically sings. Tony Huston’s (John’s son) script is a slavishly faithful adaptation of Joyce’s story, with no training wheel additions for modern audiences, so your enjoyment will be slightly improved if you have at least a vague knowledge of Irish history from that period. (Just Google the term “West Briton” and you’ll be clued into much relating to Gabriel’s character.)
While the dialogue can be credited to Joyce (sorry Tony, and your one and only writing credit), Huston deserves plenty of credit for pulling the film off. His camera is unobtrusive yet very intimate, spying many secret glances from characters that let us into their heads. Most importantly Huston has assembled a fantastic cast and elicits across the board great performances. Singling anyone out almost seems pointless, though McCann definitely has the meatiest role and O’Herlihy gets the best zingers.
The Dead is a tough film to review, as the film’s best moments are so small they inherently sound boring when described. Like a montage of random items (rosaries resting on a bible, knickknacks, a brush) while we listen to an old woman struggle through a song she sang beautifully when she was younger. Or a close up of a dinner plate being handed around the table while different items of food are applied to it. Or a woman starting to cry while being praised during a toast. Or a man nervously glancing at notes he’s prepared because he’s nervous about giving said toast. Or a man staring out the window at the falling snow. Yet in the context of the film these are the big money shot moments when Huston is flexing his director muscles.
You need a little patience to appreciate The Dead, but it is a beautifully crafted film, and anyone who considers themselves a lover of cinema should throw this on their queue immediately. Should you buy the DVD? Hell no…
This DVD is a giant FAIL.
The picture quality is lovely, but the barebones treatment the DVD gets is something I would expect for Fletch Lives. For a film made by a legend with as much to be said about as Huston, we deserve some features. For this to be Huston’s last film, we deserve some features. For the film to be based on one of the most respected novellas in the modern English language, we deserve some features. Even just cause the film is as good as it is, we deserve some features! But no, there isn’t one single feature. There aren’t even audio options or a trailer! Worse yet, apparently 10 minutes are missing from the film. According to the Interwebs, Lion’s Gate is correcting this, which may explain why the film is no longer being offered new on Amazon. Either way, unless you’re trying to assemble a Huston completist set, don’t waste the money. At least wait and see what’s up with Lion’s Gate’s re-release.
Someone call Criterion, ASAP!
9 out 10
4 out of 10