DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Dead

Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Dead

The Dead (1987) dir. John Huston
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Donal Donnelly, Dan O'Herlihy, Marie Keane, Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany and Frank Patterson


By Greg Klymkiw

There aren't many perfect movies in this world, but I can say without question or hesitation that John Huston's final picture, an exquisitely wrought adaptation of James Joyce's equally flawless short story The Dead, is the very quintessence of perfection on film. Even now, I can recall my first viewing of it in 1987 - sitting alone in my seat as the end titles rolled in the dark, my body drained of energy from the unbridled sobs the picture wrenched from deep within my very being. The final twenty minutes were ultimately responsible for turning me into a quivering mass of roiled Jello, but even that would have been nigh impossible if everything that preceded the profoundly moving conclusion hadn't steadily, gorgeously and delicately built to this sequence that in and of itself is so inextricably linked to every frame of the picture.

Such is the case with Joyce's story - which, on the page can barely feel like anything is happening at all and yet, every word, every sentence, every beat of the subtle drama compels you and draws you further into that moment when the central character Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) reveals his innermost thoughts to us and in voice-over declares:

"Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."

And so it goes with Huston's perfect adaptation of Joyce's story. The story unfolds ever-so slowly - so much so that you might wonder if there even is one. But you'll ponder this thought only briefly since you'll be taking in every detail, every nuance, every gesture with rapt attention and, I might add, delight.

Dubliners is the name of Joyce's great book that works, on one level, as a collection or cycle of short stories focusing upon a series of characters connected only by the city in which they reside and the individual journeys that lead to a substantial state of self-awareness, or perhaps, more aptly, an epiphany. Given the book's structure, some consider it a novel, not unlike Sherwood Anderson's great book Winesburg, Ohio wherein the central character is a place, the individual stories are chapters and the narrative arc of the stories as a whole comes, not only from their arrangement, but by how the reader is taken on a literary journey with those who reside in that place - a literary journey that has an epic quality to it; albeit an epic of intimacy.

The Dead provides the climax and conclusion to Dubliners, in which the self awareness gained over the course of our journey through Dublin boils down to realizing that a life, no matter how long or short, must be measured by the level of passion to which that life has been lived.

The tale begins at the annual dinner party hosted by the elderly Morkan sisters - Kate (Helena Carroll) and Julia (Cathleen Delany) - and their niece Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). It is the Feast of the Epiphany, the final day of the twelve days of Christmas in Western Christian tradition where the devout (and even not-so-devout) celebrate the adoration of the Magi (the Three Wise Men) as they first lay eyes upon the Baby Jesus. In Eastern Rite tradition, it is the baptism of Christ that is the event celebrated. Neither of these would have been lost on Joyce, and certainly not on director John Huston - in both the story and film, we are witness to both adoration and baptism - certainly in a metaphorical, if not literal sense.

The warmth of the Morkan house is fuelled by the anticipation within the Morkan sisters of their guests and in particular, the Conroys - Gabriel and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). In the beginning, there is much tut-tutting about the eventual arrival of Freddy Malins (Donal Donnely) and his Mother (Marie Keans). Freddy, it seems, is a bit of a tippler and there is an implication how much his poor, dear Mother has suffered over this. The reality is that Freddy is a rather delightful drunk, but his Mother, hardly suffering, seems so overbearingly condescending towards him that surely he's been browbeaten into his affliction. Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), the only Protestant in attendance is also a drunk, but certainly not loud, cheery and demonstrative like Freddy is. Well kept and well dressed, his quiet inebriation is tolerated due to his gentlemanly comportment.

When the grand Conroy couple finally arrives, the celebrations begin in earnest. We follow the characters throughout the evening - one of considerable gaiety - speeches are made, recitations are given, songs are sung, a piano is played and there is dancing and dancing and more dancing. Dinner is eventually served, all eat heartily until eventually, the time comes for the evening to draw to a close.

Then, it happens - the series of events that will open the tear-duct-floodgates of any audience member with a soul. The party, a brief night's journey into the depths of a divine revelation that gently floats into a deeper night and yes, a light - a light within the deep recesses of the heart that ignites with a force the movie doesn't brace you for.

The Conroys are about to leave. Gabriel, who has spent much of the evening nattering and puttering and nervous-nellying about the speech he must give, is fully dressed and looking about for his wife Gretta. Glancing up from pulling on his galoshes, he spies Gretta as she descends the staircase. An off-screen tenor begins to sorrowfully begin a musical lamentation and she freezes, listening intensely to The Lass of Aughrim. The song moves her deeply. She and her husband leave the Morkan household and check into a nearby hotel for the rest of the evening. It is here where Gretta reveals the secret she has carried deep within for her entire adult life. Frank, hearing her sad tale, watches as she cries herself to sleep. Staring at her on the bed, then out the window as the snow falls gently, he shares an epiphany with us.

There isn't a single false moment in this film. Huston's eye is so perceptive, his sense of the story's natural cinematic rhythm is so acute and the staggering brilliance of every single performance that Huston elicits are enough to commend The Dead to its rightful place as one of the great films of all time.

Gretta on the stairway landing, listening to this mournful song, is so perfectly rendered that at first, we think she is responding solely to the lyrics:

The rain falls on my yellow locks
And the dew it wets my skin;
My babe lies cold within my arms;
Lord Gregory, let me in.

As we watch her listen to the tenor, we soon realize, there is more to this tremendously moving song than the lyrics which are affecting Gretta - Huston holds the camera's gaze on his Anjelica Huston (his real-life daughter) with consummate frame composition - perhaps one that only a father can compose of his own daughter playing a role he cherishes more dearly than life itself - framed and held raptly in service to the story he's telling.

As noted earlier, perfection in cinema is rare. Huston, with his bold gift for adapting literary works to the screen (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, The Man who Would Be King, Wiseblood, Under the Volcano, etc.) creates, with The Dead, his crowning achievement.

The Dead was Huston's last film. He was in his eighties, on respiratory support and in a wheelchair when he made this picture. Clearly, Huston knew exactly how to "pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age".

We should all be so lucky.

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