THE DEAD (1987)
THE DEAD is set in early January of 1904, on the day of Epiphany. The story itself is an epiphany, a revelation of the weight of the past triggered by rather ordinary events. The film is also an epiphany of John Huston's perception of human nature. There is something almost unreal and magical about Huston's witty and elegiac last hurrah.
At their Dublin home, the Misses Morkan, two aged spinsters and their niece, all musicians, give their yearly dinner party for relatives and friends. Overall, the guests seem to be a fairly well-adjusted --even merry -- group, yet, as people are treated to drinks and dancing, to piano pieces and a recitation, there is a bit of tension in the air. Will Freddy (Donal Donnelly, who carries off splendidly all the nuances, from near-tipsy to near-sober) come in stewed ("screwed" in Joyce's text)? Can he face the judgment of his aged mother? Will the Misses Morkan remain unflustered and do the right thing by their guests? Can dinner talk --on singers people have known, on politics, on the Pope -- stay within social proprieties?
There's nothing outwardly dramatic about any of this, but it is all so well written, mounted and performed that it has the fascination of a complex miniature.
From the start, a gradual crescendo of feather-weight touches singles out nephew Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) who has come quite a distance with his wife of many years Gretta (Anjelica Huston). They have taken an hotel room for the night. Little things are troubling Gabriel : a maid's riposte about the nature of males ("The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you") ; his mandatory after-dinner speech which Gabriel, an academic and book reviewer, thinks may be over the untutored heads of his audience; a nationalistic colleague and dancing partner who taunts him for being an unpatriotic "West Briton"; a general , unspecified malaise.
But he performs well his tasks of goose-carving and complimenting his hostesses, and by extension, praising the spirit of Ireland and its hospitality.
At party's end,as Gabriel and Gretta are leaving, unexpectedly, the voice of tenor Bartell d' Arcy (Frank Patterson), who earlier had politely declined to sing, is heard singing "The Lass of Aughrim." Gretta almost freezes on the stairs, as if overcome by the sad beauty of the song.
The evening also brings to Gabriel a new longing, sentimental and sexual, for his wife. In the cab to the hotel he chats with her in the somewhat awkward way of a man making overtures --but Gretta is melancholy and distracted. In their room, Gabriel's advances result in Gretta revealing to him that the song which had so affected her used to be sung, in her youth in Galway, by Michael Furey, her first love, who died at seventeen. "I think he died for me" she says. When Michael heard that Gretta was leaving for convent-school, the boy, a consumptive, left his bed and came to her window on a cold winter night.
Gretta falls asleep. Gabriel, standing by the window and watching the snow covering the land, thinks of Michael, compares that great love with "how poor a part he, husband, had played in her life." He gives voice (the thoughts in the book become a voice-over) to his self-doubts, his inner turmoil, his reflections on death and the evanescence of time. "Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age."
One cannot really sketch out the unsummarizable "The Dead," which does not take long to read, though it does take longer to savor the weight of its every line. The bulk of the story is taken up by the party, with the last fifth of the text concentrating on the Gabriel-Gretta couple. The film respects those proportions. John Huston and his son, scriptwriter Tony Huston, made minor changes or shifts . These do not affect the original. Physically, Joyce 's Gabriel, (a glass-wearing "stout, tallish young man" ); Freddy ("a young man of about forty"); or the singer D' Arcy ("a dark-complexioned young man"), may not correspond precisely to the film's figures, but there is no harm done. A new, minor character is introduced (he does the recitation). A cabman is given some new lines. Gabriel's amusing anecdote about a horse is transposed to the ride in the cab, a clever move which fleshes out that transitional section while lightening the conversational element of the party. Had this not been done, since the indirect speech of the text necessarily becomes time-consuming dialogue in the film, the ratio of party to post-party scenes might have been off balance.
The entire cast, all Irish by birth or citizenship, is admirable. Huston was, to the end, a master director of actors. The conjunction of performances, dialogue and cinematography allows some slight modifications, elaborations and stresses which help the text come alive. Semi-senile Aunt Julia's singing becomes unsteady in the movie, while D'Arcy's is not affected by his cold, as in the story. The drinking Freddy produces pleasant new bits of comic relief business. When, in the nostalgic talk of past singers, Aunt Kate, the main host, speaks of the best tenor she had ever known, her performance adds to the text a strong sense of melancholy which heralds the emotions of scenes to come.
Prose-to- screen adaptation is a notoriously risky business. It is an accepted fact that most of the best films from literary sources come from minor --even mediocre -- writing. The challenge of true literature is augmented here by that posed by the "unfilmable" Joyce. Some Joyceans may cavil at certain aspects of the movie, but it is pointless to make intolerant comparisons between totally different media. Oil is oil and vinegar is vinega. We should be grateful when they combine into a good dressing.
The subtle job done in "The Dead" is, in an unassuming fashion, a tour-de-force in the way it allies respect for Joyce and cinematic imagination. I will omit further examples, but I must mention the treatment of the musical passages in this very music-conscious, melodious film. You might expect John Huston, a very ill old man who directed this film from a wheelchair, and attached to breathing machinery, to have been an old man in a hurry. This he was emphatically not. He let his music play out, giving us full piano pieces, full dances and full songs, including the turning point, "The Lass of Aughrim" which, in the story, is broken off. This sort of completeness is filmic courage in an age of impatient publics,but is not new for Huston. Already, in the wedding sequence of "Prizzi's Honor," he had his soprano sing the entire "Ave Maria" while the camera explored the audience leisurely and minutely, setting up moods and relationships.
The exteriors of "The Dead" were shot in Ireland, and the inteiors were filmed in a warehouse in Valencia, California. But the production values are of such a high order that the movie has the authentic look which is so typical of Huston's work. The production was an expanded family affair for the Hustons (John, Tony, Anjelica) and collaborators like assistant director Tom Shaw, a faithful John Huston regular. The sense of the participants' love for what they're doing is palpable.