Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost and Found: John Huston's The Dead

It’s a good thing that I have friends with sharp tastes in movies. Otherwise I would have been totally oblivious to the news last fall that John Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” was finally available on DVD. (It was pretty much ignored by DVD reviewers despite getting two nominated Academy Awards upon its release almost 25 years ago.)

Huston was a prolific director of many substantial and influential pictures based on literature including his 1941 debut The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), the underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi’s Honor (1985). His career had small triumphs like A Walk with Love and Death (1969) and Wise Blood (1979), along with ambitious failures such as Moby Dick (1956), Freud (1962) and Fat City (1972), and basic bummers like the musical Annie (1982). The Dead was a triumph of adversity given that Huston was near the end of his life and directing most of the picture from a wheelchair between toots of air in an oxygen tent. Along with Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), The Dead is a nothing less than a masterful summing up picture.

Joyce’s short story gathered in his remarkable anthology Dubliners (1916) brought together a series of tales that make up a moral history of his home city. The book amounts to an astonishing collection of contemplative prose. Each story, concluding with “The Dead,” reveals what critic Harry Levin called “a progression from childhood to maturity, broadening from private to public scope.” In achieving this, Dubliners has more than a passing acquaintance with mortality. In the opening story, “The Sisters,” a young boy overhears a conversation about the death of a priest that has profound impact on his life whereas the concluding story “The Dead” is about how the chance hearing of a song at the conclusion of the Feast of Epiphany in 1904 invokes the memory of a deceased lover.

John Huston’s The Dead is a significant chamber work, re-imagined through Chekhov, that builds to an epiphany where the past gathers profound weight in the present. The story begins at the Dublin home of two old spinsters and their niece who are hosting their annual dinner party for friends and relatives. As the group wines and dines, sharing music and poetry, their casual conversation begins to uncover assumptions, perceived injustices, and judgments. Social proprieties slowly wither as the evening progresses. Huston directs these scenes as if he were a casual observer quietly peeling away the undercurrents of friction between family and friends. Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) arrives with his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) and we soon learn that Gabriel, an academic, is uncomfortable with his station in life. He fears that he’s a man who knows everything and yet understands nothing. Gabriel comes to confront that contradiction just as he and Gretta are departing for the evening. When she hears tenor Bartell d’Arcy (Frank Patterson) sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a traditional Irish ballad which tells the story of a young girl who is made pregnant by a man and then seeks refuge after giving birth, the poignant stillness of Bartell’s voice freezes her on the staircase and transports her beyond the evening to a place beyond time.

When they return to their room, Gabriel feels sexually drawn to his wife but still finds her distant and melancholy. When he questions her reasons for this detached mood, she tells him the story of a young boy, Michael Furey, her first love, who once sang her that song, but died of consumption at 17. Hearing the song that evening leads her to believe that he may have died for her. As Gretta falls asleep, Gabriel begins to feel insignificant in both his marriage and life having never felt anything so deeply rendered before. In the story, after Gretta reveals what the song has invoked in her, Joyce describes Gabriel’s state of mind in a stream of astonishingly suggestive passages. Huston alters it into a soliloquy that rides on a riverbed of recollection filled with self-doubt. Aided by Alex North’s delicate score, which does subtle variations on “The Lass of Aughrim,” Huston undercuts our desire to turn memory into nostalgia by illuminating just how fleeting time, purpose and loss can be. His son, Tony Huston, also did a masterful job of adapting the story making only minimal changes that captured the substance of the text without losing Joyce’s plaintive voice.

Ironically, when The Dead came out on DVD on November 3, 2009, ten minutes of footage was missing from the picture. The distributor, Lionsgate, quickly promised the complete version later that month, but I have yet to check out whether that’s been done. And so far, there’s no way to know since nobody’s talking about this neglected gem. In coming back to life, The Dead is still sadly in purgatory.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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