Director: John Huston
Writer: Tony Huston; based upon "The Dead" by James Joyce
Cinematographer: Fred Murphy
by Jon Cvack
I checked out James Joyce’s story before visiting the film. My aunt had gifted me a version that included the story and then four essays focusing on historical and psychological analysis, deconstruction, and feminist theory. Learning that many consider "The Dead" one of the finest short stories written in the English language, and after finishing Ulysses and failing to understand more than a few pages out of the 750 and presently trying to wade through Finnegan's Wake (and having the most frustrating reading experience of my life), I was excited to check out something a bit more accessible. It’s a solid story, involving a dinner party between old friends, each with rich personality, ranging from alcoholism to artistic talent to supreme intelligence. It’s a snowy night and Joyce splices in pop culture, political, historical, and cultural references. For anyone that’s a critic of films that include direct modern cultural references, you needn’t point to the finger at Tarantino, but rather to Joyce, as the text is filled with so many references of the time that the footnotes take up a David Foster Wallace portion of the book.
The supplementary critical essays ranged from fascinating to academically absurd - the type of analysis that makes you wonder who reads it beyond those who would write equally dense pieces. We learn about the political and social environment in Ireland during the time, as it was struggling with complete severance from the UK, discussing a return to Native Gaelic in order to preserve its identity, as expressed by Molly Ivors. We learn that the snow must have represented the vast wasteland and hopelessness experienced by Joyce during the time, who might have placed part himself into main character Gabriel Conroy (played by Donal McCann in the film), looking out into the future of his country and remaining uncertain over its future. We learn that the women were treated as inferior, with Kate and Julia Morkan having little to say about culture and functioning as superficial hostesses rather than contributing substantially to the dialogue.
The book had mentioned John Huston’s adaptation, specifically it’s concluding montage as the snow is falling. It was Huston’s last film after a career that spanned 46 years, beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941), going on to provide us The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with many great films, concluding with The Dead, in which he died shortly after. The closing moment, as Gretta Conroy recounts the story of her past love in youth, who died from tuberculosis, shortly after he journeyed through the cold snow to visit Gretta one night, of which the memory was brought on by a song sung at the party, is something I found myself unable to forget and grew excited to see come to life. There’s an intimacy with the story, as we see how everyone is willing to let loose a bit, enjoy some drinks, good food, great discussion, and lifelong friendships all while a melancholy extends throughout the story. I assume John Huston knew that his life was coming to an end, and that this film would likely be his last; that he too would be staring out into the cold snow, not knowing what was next, only that the uncertainty was overwhelming and smothering to the mind.
The film made me recall those rare moments when all the friends you hope to gather at a party are finally able to arrive. It occurs only once across years, no matter how hard people try. There’s always the one straggler that you wish could have made it. In those rare moments you spend a few moments reflecting on past memories, and move on to discussing the present and future. You talk about jobs and prospects; films, shows, books, and new ones to come; you discover how some relationships have evolved, others have remained, and a few have ended. The night’s always end far too quickly, and there’s a melancholy at the end, as you wonder when, if ever, you’ll all assemble again, knowing that it’ll take years more, and who knows what might happen.
It’s captured so perfectly by the closing line by Joyce, as Gabriel stares out into the cold snow, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Gabriel wonders if he ever loved Gretta as much as the boy she mentions, causing him to reassess his life and all he experienced. I think Huston, having such a monumental body of work, wondered if it was all worth it; if he got all he wanted out of life; if he too could have done better, or something more. He was one of the rare directors who transitioned to color film with grace, never allowing his style to age, as happened to many others from the classical period. He accomplished the rare feat of adapting one of the most revered stories in literature, and doing so with such compliment. The film's not better, it’s supplemental. He immersed us within an environment that Joyce brought to life. At only sixty pages, the story feels so real. Huston puts images to those words, and I’d bet the closing images would have made Joyce proud. You feel cold while reading the story and watching the film, wanting to sit next to a fire with some bourbon and those you love. For two giants to elicit such a reaction is incredible. I loved it.
BELOW: The beautiful finale, both for the film and for Huston. Rarely does such a revered moment from a book adapt so well to the screen
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