On this Halloween night, with the trick-or-treating behind me and the kids tucked in and sound asleep, I flopped down on the couch in front of the TV and re-watched an old favorite of mine, perfectly suited for the holiday.
The Dead, John Huston’s final film, was released just after his death in 1987 and based on the short story of the same name by James Joyce. It was a fitting conclusion to Huston’s career, as it deals with the power our departed friends and loved ones have over us, even after many years of absence.
The movie takes place in Dublin in 1904, at an annual dinner party given by a pair of elderly sisters for their friends in the local music scene. It’s the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, and it’s as though we’ve been transported, via time machine, to this point in time, where we are allowed to witness a simpler time, before mass communication, where people entertained one another by sharing their talents – singing, playing piano, and reciting poems.
As the guests enjoy the fine dinner prepared for them, the theme of death begins to emerge. The party goers are both very young and very old, and as they discuss new a production of an opera, they share their opinions of favorite tenors. This causes Kate Morkan, one of the hostesses, to reflect with deep affection on a long-dead tenor whom hardly anyone knows ever existed. But we see that even in the face of near oblivion that this man lives on in the deep emotion that his memory still evokes in this old woman. But it’s not a maudlin gathering. These references and connections are made in the midst of joking, dancing, arguing, and eating.
As in real life, the dead are never too far removed from us, and it’s in moments like this that Huston confronts us with just how temporary our lives are, though he never comes out and says it.
At the heart of the movie are Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, a prosperous, happily married middle-aged couple played by Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston. Gabriel is a fussy, insecure man prone to watching the others from the sidelines. He’s nervous about the toast he is to give, and sneaks off to rehearse whenever he gets a moments. Gretta is a woman who is moved by the various performances throughout the evening, and we understand her to be sensitive – the opposite of her husband.
This point is driven home when, at the conclusion of the party, Gabriel sees his wife transfixed half a story above him, on the landing of the stairs, as she is caught up in an impromptu performance, by another guest, a tenor himself, of The Lass of Aughrim, a melancholy song that captivates Gretta in a way that disturbs Gabriel.
Later, when the two are undressing at a hotel Gabriel has rented for the night, he pushes Gretta to understand what had happened earlier. Under his prodding, she reveals that the song reminded her of someone who had also sung the song – a boy from her youth named Michael Furey.
Gabriel, his feelings hurt, accuses Gretta of being in love with this man, but she informs him that Michael Furey died when they were seventeen, and that she was the cause of his death.
This is all news to Gabriel, and he pushes Gretta to finish the story. We learn that he was a sickly boy who disobeyed his doctor’s orders and went to see her in a cold winter rain, just as she was preparing to enter convent. As she finishes her story, she collapses in tears on the bed. Gabriel doesn’t know how to console her. Instead, he watches her sleep and takes stock of his life.
As this happens, Huston cuts for the first time to narration and takes us inside Gabriel’s head as he meditates on what has just happened. It’s a beautiful and sad moment of self-discovery. He confesses to himself how little he knows his wife, despite years of marriage. He confesses that he has never loved anyone, not even his own wife, as Michael Furey loved her – risking his life for love. He confesses the shallowness of his existence, how his life is played for show, basically.
And then, Gabriel walks to the window, pulls the curtain, and gives voice to the beautiful last words of Joyce’s story as stark and lovely images of the snow covered Irish countryside fill the screen:
“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland….”
John Huston took great delight in the weird twists that life throws our way, and it seems that he would have found the irony of dying just before the premiere of this movie irresistible. If you’ve never seen The Dead, you should. But first, read the story.