John Huston’s Last Masterpiece: The Dead, 35 Years Later

Movies Features John Huston
John Huston’s Last Masterpiece: The Dead, 35 Years Later

“It was always a great affair, Miss Morkan’s annual dance….” The snow is falling as the guests arrive. Cousins, nieces and nephews, friends of the family—it is the annual Christmastime party. Arriving late are Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, the former of whom becomes something of a protagonist in a deceptively simple story, as he comes to a revelation about his own insignificance.

There is “The Dead,” the short story by James Joyce published in his breakout early collection Dubliners, and then there is The Dead, the final film of Hollywood maverick John Huston, who made a career of adaptation. While legendarily considered unfilmable, the two pieces are remarkably similar while still being of different focuses by their respective artists, one being an examination or even imagination of later life by a young man at the start of what he hoped would be a significant career, and the other a last minute work of reflection by a dying man who wouldn’t live to see his film released some 35 years ago.

At the party there is dancing, drinking and amusements before dinner. We get to know our turn-of-the-century, Irish, middle-class characters through their passing interactions with one another, their behind-the-back anecdotes, bits of rumors and slight embarrassments. There is the alcoholic Freddy Malins whose overbearing mother got him to take the teetotaler’s pledge—which he has already broken tonight—at the start of the new year. There is Mr. Brown, the high-minded Protestant who thinks little of Freddy, but can’t help his own drinking. There’s Aunt Kate and Julia, the aging hostesses, and their talented pianist niece Mary Jane. And of course there’s the Conroys. We get little idea of Gretta at first. She spends most of the party in quiet appreciation and at times will become oddly distant. But Gabriel, the part-time writer who’s meant to give the big dinner toast, sees himself as needing to be the most welcoming and cordial of all the guests.

Gabriel is in many ways a European man more than an Irishman. The housekeeper Lily comments on his strange boots, and he tells her that galoshes are very popular on the continent. He writes a literary review column for a British-owned newspaper, which gets the young revolutionary Miss Molly Ivors to call him a West Briton—a harsh put-down at the time, claiming he favors the rule of those on the other side of the Irish Sea. Gabriel is confused by all of this. He is quite bored with Ireland but still sees himself as a politically moderate figure, a neutral party in a polarized time. In fact, most things about Gabriel are middling. He is a crowd pleaser, a man of liberal sentiment who won’t take too harsh an opinion of anyone or anything, ultimately without passion.

When they’re going to leave the party, Gabriel catches a glimpse of Gretta struck in a trance at the top of the stairs, lost in memory as a song echoes through the halls. He confronts her when they get home; she reveals that song, “The Lass of Aughrim,” used to be sung to her by her first love, Michael Furey, a young boy from her days in Galway. Michael was in declining health when they first met, but Gretta believes she killed him. One night before she was off to the convent, she heard a tapping at her window. It was Michael, standing in the rain to see her one last time. She implored him to go home before the weather took him, but he refused. He died soon after, at 17. Gabriel comes to realize that he has never felt for his wife what that young boy did, and how poor a part he’s played in all their years. As he’s coming to terms with the insignificance his life has amounted to, he looks out the window to see the snow falling over all of Ireland that night.

That is The Dead, both Joyce’s and Huston’s. “The story is about a man being revealed to himself and we’re being revealed to ourselves…What we think we are and what we are are two different things…and the discovery of that can be pretty unsettling,” as Huston would put it. But it’s in the finer details in his film that separates it from Joyce’s story.

Tony Huston, John’s eldest son, felt he had much to prove to his father in adapting the script. Having spent his screenwriting career in the world of schlock, going in on an unfilmable story would be a serious challenge. The film would be just as personal for Tony as for his father; during the writing process, he was still reeling from the shock of his wife telling him she didn’t want him to come home—that she had fallen out of love with him. Still, through all the pressure and tumult, Tony proved to be successful and even got an Academy Award nomination for his efforts (this was also Tony’s last screenplay to be filmed before switching careers). In order to condense and refocus the story, Tony first and foremost de-emphasized the political dialogue. What was hot-button during its original publication (only a few years before the Irish Revolution) became part of the detailed period texture that colors Huston’s work. But the most important change comes from the way perspective is used, both in context of the artists behind the works and within the works themselves.

The 1987 film is shot heavily with a Steadicam. The 60-something pound rig moves through the set quite strangely for the innovative device. First pioneered to get new kinds of smooth, mobile images, Huston uses it like a crane and dolly rig navigating to precise positions in an old Hollywood soundstage, although here the cameraman can move about the set without needing to hide behind the fourth wall. Huston can have his camera dance with ease along with the characters and, combined with his snappy, meticulous mise en scène, the film is a breezy 83 minutes.

Even though Huston makes it look all too easy, it required intensive and exacting rehearsals. Huston would adjust the actors’ every movement, and the speed at which they did them. The final product seems effortless. That’s the magic. But it’s here too in the rehearsal process for The Dead that biographer Lawrence Grobel, in his sprawling work The Hustons, flashes back to John’s early days, and his own revelation that would lead him to one day become a filmmaker.

John was watching his father Walter rehearse in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. He was 18 years old. He saw the magic of the play slowly get refined and evolve day by day before coming together into a complete and beautiful work. On the night of the premiere, young Huston found O’Neill at a theater a few blocks from the performance. He told O’Neill that it should be the actors who are nervous, not him. O’Neill responded: “They’re playing but one part apiece—I’m playing them all.” This stuck with Huston, and he became hungry to be them all: The actors, the set designers, the writers.

There’s a devastating past-tense quality in Huston’s film which departs greatly from the way the perspective works in Joyce’s observational story, set so firmly in his own present. Huston opens with a title card over the first shot, an exterior of the Morkan residence: “Dublin 1904”. He establishes for us firmly that this is a film in the past, of the past and about the past. There is an impending doom, as much a film dealing with the fear of death and aging as the revelations that come with it—the ones that upend the clear paths people try to set out for themselves. The dead don’t just haunt the film, but they are imminent. As Miss Julie performs for the guests, her once-beautiful singing voice has clearly withered with age, and the camera begins to wander into the back rooms, filled with memorabilia of those long-since gone. Her voice carries with it the memory of what is lost.

The emotional core of the movie is not with Gabriel. He is, ultimately, an observer. The real star of the show is Gretta, played quietly, brilliantly and ultimately explosively by Anjelica Huston (who won that year’s Independent Spirit Award for “Best Supporting Female”). The father-daughter relationship was difficult for most of his life: He pushed her into acting before she was ready (she was only 16) and he was a needy tyrant at home—that kind of macho 20th century man that proved incapable of taking care of his own needs without completely relying on those he commanded around. But in his old age, using a wheelchair and oxygen tank while emphysema racked his body, the man’s tough façade began to wither, and a true gentleness came out. Their relationship got better, and they left us with a stunning final collaboration.

One of the most show-stopping, jaw-dropping moments I have ever seen in a film is the dramatization of Gretta hearing “The Lass of Aughrim.” The music begins to play as Gabriel is finishing affixing his galoshes. He looks up the stairs to see his wife gently sliding down the stairs, her eyes transfixed towards the sounds. It cuts back to Gabriel and pulls away, ever so slightly, back up the steps—as if the music had its own gravitational pull. Looking back at Gretta, her steps have become so soft that it looks like she is floating down, the light from upstairs settling on her face—Anjelica Huston’s incredible face, one of the most powerful faces in the history of cinema—before she stops completely, as if time itself has stopped. The stained glass behind her forms a crown. She bows her head, lost completely in the moment, in the past. It’s a scene where not even the lyricism of Joyce can fully match the power of cinema.

During the emotional conclusion of the film, the scene wanders off again. In Joyce’s story, the last couple of pages are pure contemplation, a theoretically unfilmable litany of words that is the detached narrator telling us of Gabriel’s narration. In the film, this is when Huston breaks into the first-person, and Joyce’s words are reworked and turned to narration. It is not the author telling us what Gabriel thinks, but Gabriel himself—a man lost in contemplation as he looks out to see the lights of the street illuminate the flakes of falling snow. His mind wanders to the future, and he sees himself sitting, dressed in black, at Aunt Julia’s deathbed. He contemplates how he’ll be remembered, if at all. If it matters. After all, the snow is falling over all of Ireland that night, over all the living and the dead. Huston is creating one last judgment for himself. In taking Joyce’s story, which is so focused on people’s banal failings, he’s asking if what he thinks of himself is the same as what his storied, controversial life truly has been. It is his last internal monologue before he becomes another part of that eternal and unmoving landscape—the world of the dead. Before he’s just another bit of dust in the ground, he asks himself one of the most unsettling questions a person can think of in their final hours: What have I left behind?

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Portland, OR, he got a BA in film from Montana State University, and after working in politics for a time relocated to Baltimore. He spends his days working behind bar, endlessly editing old projects, researching new ones, and occasionally putting out writing. Words can usually be found at Frameland, Splice Today, his newsletter CompCin for longer-form writing, and Twitter for things that are barely written at all.

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