john cribbs


John Huston made a lot of films that sound like they should be horror movies. Beat the Devil. Night of the Iguana. The Unforgiven. He only really dabbled in the genre officially one time, with the forgettable 1980 flop Phobia! written by Gary Sherman (director of Raw Meat and, yeck, Poltergeist III) and Alien co-writer Ronald Shusett, starring Paul Michael Glaser (real middle name: Manfred.) So I doubt that in 1987 there were too many George Romero fans tearing up their tickets in disgust after sitting through Huston's adaptation of James Joyce's long short story/novella and finding it zombie-free. The dead don't end up storming the Epiphany Party held by two elderly Irish ladies and their niece that makes up the majority of the narrative, but as it turns out the big twist is that a dead person has been haunting the proceedings the entire time. Which is a flimsy enough excuse for me to include this as part of October's horror-themed series of articles.

"I have no style that I'm aware of," Huston once admitted, something that not a lot of film scholars would argue with. Even in his best films, the director's impartial aesthetic often resulted in garish overdirection and characters who are easy to enjoy but hard to really get inside of. So it's something of a miracle that The Dead, helmed by an 80-year-old veteran barking orders through an oxygen mask from a wheelchair behind a video monitor, would turn out to be such a refined and nuanced final effort. The director allows the guests to arrive at the party and enter the narrative gradually, yet it doesn't feel at all like padding to expand a 40-page story into an 83 minute feature. He doesn't overdramatize moments like Gabriel's early indiscretion with Lily the maid or his humiIiation at the hands of nationalist Molly Ivors. He takes time to focus on people changing into indoor shoes, and films small moments like this and people crossing the floor to approach a new dance partner with the observational curiosity of a child who's woken from sleep and wandered over to spy on the adult festivities. It's not the way Joyce set the scene, but it's the way Huston wants to explore it, with the same unblemished optimism as the evening offers on the surface. Of course, there are more complicated things going on under the semblance of formal joviality.

The Oscar-nominated adaptation was by John's son Tony Huston* (with uncredited contributions by the director), and it does a good job filling in the blanks that may not have been necessary in Joyce's story but in the film serve as a gateway to some of the more inaccessible supporting characters. This is most beneficial to the character of drunk Freddy Malins, present in the story mainly as an anxiety to the hostesses but fleshed out in the film to represent a man whose perceived wasted life seems less plebeian when held up next to the artificial airs of the more successful people around him (this year's equivalent would be Peter Wright's Ken in Another Year.) One added scene in which Gabriel grants his aunts' request to deflect Freddy from the other guests when he arrives and assess his level of intoxication before he interacts with anybody is the perfect way to hold the two men up next to each other and examine Freddy's unencumbered veracity in contrast to Gabriel's dutiful nobility. Freddy, a perfectly cast Donal Donnelly (from Shake Hands with the Devil), also engages in more heated verbal sparring with Mr. Browne (Halloween III's Dan O'Herlihy), particularly after becoming so taken by elderly Aunt Kate's solo that he trips himself up trying to express his honest exultation at her performance. Browne ridicules this ovation as what it sounds like - drunken mumbling - and offers Aunt Kate the kind of flattering, patronizing comment that is as socially adequate as it is completely insincere. The others in the room respond to this sober politeness and dismiss Freddy's clumsy earnestness, setting up the mentality that Gabriel's eventual epiphany will bring crashing down (the ignorant idea that a wife is devoted only to her husband.) There's nothing wrong with Browne's pandering to compliment Aunt Kate's singing, just as there's nothing wrong with Gabriel's well-received if empty toast to Irish hospitality, but it has no meaning beyond its broad social civility.

The guests at the Morkan's gathering came expecting good food and dancing; they don't necessarily want greater meaning brought to their attention. Therefore another awkward moment is played out in the most significant addition to the story. A new character, Mr. Grace, reads the Middle Irish poem "Donal Og" by Lady Gregory about a woman suffering over the pain of a lost lover. The poem itself is beautifully spoken by Body Bags' Sean McClory: you really feel like an enrapt listener among the other guests as he's reading it, relishing the haunting echo of the line "you have taken God from me." It's a truly hypnotic passage, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the scene's inclusion is hugely unnecessary, at best a redundant precursor to the famous "Distant Music" scene. Huston not only shows Gretta responding to the poem, but Gabriel noticing her reaction. It might be a mistake to introduce both Gretta's sadness and Gabriel's witnessing of it so early in the film. But in defense of the scene's incorporation to Joyce's narrative, it does make Gabriel almost comically even more nervous for his upcoming toast, which he seems to realize has no chance of being anywhere near as elegant or honest as the simple recitation of the poem. However since it's harder in the movie to appreciate the level of Gabriel's anxiety over his own speech than it is when Joyce describes it in the story that's a small victory for the younger Huston. Interestingly, Molly Ivors is present at the toast in the movie whereas she had left the party before dinner in the story, another interesting change considering Gabriel's overcompensation in light of her playful accusations that he lacked true patriotism (the movie even clears up why the term "West Briton" is such an insult - thanks, Tony Huston.)

The story's money moment, when Gabriel watches Gretta at the top of the stairs as she becomes enveloped by a song coming from somewhere in the house, is impossible to miss. I said before that Huston did a good job not overdramatizing scenes, but he milks this one for all it's worth. He does away with the shadow from Joyce's description that obscures Gabriel's immediate recognition of the woman lost in reverie as his wife so that the entire scene is focused on his reaction. This is naturally the most difficult part of the story to translate to the screen, Gabriel's adoration of the "grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something" being entirely internalized. The scene in the film lasts a full two minutes, is not interrupted by other characters crossing from room to room or the noise of people in the background (in the story Gabriel can't hear the music that so moves Gretta due to the commotion around him) and Gretta is lit to isolate her against a desaturated blank wall. It kind of reminded me of Lem Dobbs complaining to Steven Soderbergh on The Limey dvd commentary about the way the director actualized his screenplay's description of the grieving father ascending the stairs of Peter Fonda's house to see a picture of his daughter hanging by itself on the wall. "This is an example of screenwriting, and what happens to screenwriters," Dobbs explains, as he envisioned the character seeing many pictures and doing a double take when he realizes one of them is an image of his daughter. "The difference between what people do in movies...and reality." Being left with only the image of a woman on the stairs, the staircase moment becomes ultra-sexualized, with Gabriel leering at his wife lustily. I thought this was a decision of Huston's, but then I re-read the story and was surprised how much Joyce writes about Gabriel's arousal at this vision of his wife, which lasts from the staircase to the story of Michael Furey back in the hotel room.

It's not until the "Distant Music" scene that Joyce reveals what a crucial part Gretta plays in the story. In the movie there's no mistaking the importance of the character, since she's being played by The Witches' Anjelica Huston. Before seeing the film I was averse to the idea of Anjelica as Gretta - although she was appropriately vulnerable as Lilly in The Grifters, I couldn't imagine her exhibiting the meekness and later the melancholy of the woman identified four times as "Gabriel's wife" or "his wife" in Joyce's story before her name is revealed. My reservations over the potential miscasting were expelled in the final scene, where she absolutely nails Gretta's detachment from her husband in relating the sad tale of Michael Furey, the young lad who loved her and died because he couldn't stand to be away from her during his sickness, and her breathtaking recital of the line, taken verbatim from Joyce, "I think he died for me." Huston, not exactly known for his sensitive female characters (although his films occasionally featured some of the strongest, like Katherine Hepburn's Rose Sayer), turns the film over to his daughter in this final bit of dialogue and she certainly deserved more recognition for this role than the one she scored an Oscar for in Prizzi's Honor. She's open like a wound, yet still capable of softly cutting as in her response to Gabriel when he compares himself to Freddy: "You're far too respectable for that, Gabriel" (I could have done without that additional bit of sarcastic chiding, although I suppose it's a paraphrasing of her line "You're very generous, Gabriel" in reference to his lending of a pound to Freddy in the story.) At the heart of her performance is Gretta's incurable sadness, not so much over the death of a boy as the way she's allowed herself to continue living in the aftermath of his sacrifice.

François Truffaut once stated "The worst Hawks film is more interesting than the best of Huston." I'm inclined to agree, although I'd add that the best of Huston is far better than the best of Hawks. His filmography, made up of 27 out of 37 theatrical and literary adaptations, flipflopped between films that failed to capture the spirit of their source (Moby Dick, Wise Blood) and ones that not only succeeded but enhanced the original work with the director's visual flair (Man Who Would Be King, Under the Volcano.) It's good to see he went out with a movie that firmly belongs to the latter group, considering his late career output up to then consisted of embarrassing studio hack jobs like Phobia!, Victory and Annie and the (in my opinion) overrated Prizzi's Honor. It feels like a movie made at just the right time and perfectly preserved, especially since so many of those involved are now among the dead themselves: Huston, O'Herlihy, McClory, Donal Donnelly (who died earlier this year), even Rawhead Rex's Donal McCann, who played Gabriel but sadly succumbed to pancreatic cancer at 56.

The director's best films - Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, Fat City, The Man Who Would Be King - followed the leitmotif of desperate men who question "What's in it for me?" only to discover their own fallibility. The Dead is no different, except that Gabriel thinks he's found the answer to happiness when it has in fact eluded him up to this moment. That's a notable change in theme for Huston, here more contemplative of living and dying than ever and finally adapting a style, one that's thoughtful, nostalgic and regretful. Pauline Kael compared it favorably to Satyajit Ray, also noting that at his age it was easier for Huston to direct than to breathe, and that awareness of morality for the director is as important as Gabriel's own epiphany. In the most beautiful scene of the movie, Huston lets his camera linger over an empty room with old photos, embroidery, the well-worn Bible and - in what may be the best shot of the movie - coats on the bed as Aunt Kate sings for the guests downstairs. In these shots, Huston is appreciating the life of an old woman, and it's as if we're seeing the same proud remnants of an existence that Freddy Malins heard and found himself unable to express verbally as Aunt Kate sang. Death accentuates life, Huston speculates as McCann narrates the final paragraph of the story over the gorgeous image of snow falling in the final shots of the film "upon all the living and the dead."


* Son Danny is also a director (The Maddening) and an actor (30 Days of Night).


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