The Dead (1987, John Huston)

Salman Rushdie came better prepared this time. He’s a fan of John Huston in general, but after programming the long-unseen Wise Blood last year for his “great adaptations” series, he turned out not to like the adaptation very much. This one he talked about as if he’d just watched it.

It’s quite a strange movie, and seems profoundly appropriate as a great action/adventure director’s final film. Opens with some friends arriving at a small party hosted by a couple of older women, spends ninety minutes at the party, then a short cab ride home with Anjelica Huston (oscar-winning for her previous John Huston film) and her husband Donal McCann (obviously not a huge film actor, was in Rawhead Rex the previous year, and not even in the lead). She confesses to her husband about a boy who loved her when she was in high school, who loved her with a passion her husband has never known, who died when she left town. And after she falls asleep, he looks out the window, his thoughts in voiceover are the James Joyce story’s celebrated final paragraph.

Ebert has a really wonderful write-up on the film:

The Dead ends in sadness, but it is one of the great romantic films, fearless in its regard for regret and tenderness. John Huston … had an instinctive sympathy for the kindness with which the guests at the Misses Morkan’s party accepted one another’s lives and failings. … Gabriel is the witness to it all. An early shot shows the back of his head, regarding everyone in the room. Later he will see his wife, finally, as the person she really is and always has been. And he will see himself, with his ambitions as a journalist, the bright light of his family, the pride of his aunts, as a paltry fellow resting on unworthy accomplishments. Did these thoughts go through John Huston’s mind as he chose his last film and directed it? How could they not? And if all those sad things were true, then he could at least communicate them with grace and poetry, in a film as quiet and forgiving as the falling snow.

The only actor I recognized (besides Huston, of course) was Colm Meaney in a minor role. Also in the room here Dan O’Herlihy (Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe), Donal Donnelly (of Richard Lester’s The Knack) as a drunk, Helena Carroll (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) as one of the hostesses (don’t know if she’s the one in charge or the one who sings a song who McCann imagines dead in the final monologue) and Marie Kean (Barry Lyndon’s mother).

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