Old 05-24-2009, 05:10 PM
John Huston's The Dead

The Dead (1987)

This was director John Huston's final film. The man who had given us such great films as "The Maltese Falcon," "The African Queen," and my personal favorite, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," was very ill while filming "The Dead." Did Huston know this was going to be his last film when he chose it? Perhaps he did, and in a way, it's a very fitting final film.

Based on the short story by James Joyce, "The Dead" tells the story of family and friends getting together for a party in Dublin in 1904. The party is hosted by Aunt Kate (Helena Carroll), Aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany), and Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie). Guests include Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston), Freddy Malins (Donal Donnelly), and his mother (Marie Kean), among others. There's not really a plot per se, but rather, we just follow the guests at the party as they hold discussions, dance, and entertain each other.

When the film was over, I was very split as to whether I actually liked this or not. On the one hand, I found myself fascinated at this get together of interesting characters, but on the other hand, the film doesn't really have a lot of substance to it with conversations that aren't particularly interesting. What was interesting about the film though was not was was on the surface, but what was underneath.

None of these characters really want to admit that they haven't really gotten anywhere in life, or that their lives are starting to decline, yet they continue to hold this annual party where they get together and are seemingly happy. There's Freddy, a known alcoholic, who shows up already drunk, but we slowly realize that his mother is not exactly the most amiable person; early on, we see her sitting all alone on a couch, and even when Gabriel strikes up a conversation with her, we can see that he can't wait to get away.

Gabriel himself has had ambitions as a journalist, but another guest gives her opinion that the newspaper he writes for is nothing but a rag. There is a really awkward scene in which Aunt Julia sings (or at least tries her best to). She doesn't sing very well nowadays, but once her performance is over, Freddy gets up and showers her with praise, causing a bit of embarrassment. The list goes on, but I think you get the idea.

What I found very strange about this film was the ending, which felt like it belonged in a different movie. After leaving the party, Gabriel and Gretta go back to their hotel the night before they leave on a trip. Here, Gretta tells Gabriel the story of a man named Michael Furey, whom she once loved, but who died at the very young age of 17. She had been reminded of him because a singer at the party had sung a song that Michael used to sing.

This felt strangely detached from the rest of the film mainly because it didn't seem to fit in with what the film had been focusing on before. After watching the film, I read Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay wherein he focuses a lot on this ending, saying that everything else had been a prologue to it. One possible connection I see between the ending and the rest of the film is that Gretta was possibly hiding that she had always only loved Michael, but then wouldn't she have broken down crying long before that moment?

The best connection I can see with the ending goes back to the question of whether or not Huston knew this would be his last film. The final scene does have an interesting contemplation of death as Gabriel tells us how the snow falls upon the living and the dead, and it is in this sense that it was a very fitting final film from a master director.

After considering this film from beneath the surface, it is good enough to recommend. I have not read the short story from Joyce, but after skimming through it for a few minutes, it appears that the dialogue is taken almost exactly word for word. I have a feeling the film would have worked better without the story of Michael Furey, but still including Gabriel's voice-over monologue from the very end. However, it is the party scenes that deserve the most attention. As the film progresses, we discover that most of these characters are merely acting, giving us a portrayal of happiness, while inside, they are merely "the dead." 3/4 stars.
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