The Dead by John Huston

Reviewed by Edward N. Reynolds, Ph.D.
In JRT Issue 5, Spring 1988

Where do we find the sources of most of life’s drama and struggle, in this life or in past lifetimes? Most past-life researchers and therapists would say that in understanding the depths of our being, past lives are more real than ordinary daily existence.

In an odd way, this is also the position taken by director John Huston in The Dead, the final film of his career. Huston completed this work only shortly before his death a few months ago.

Based on a brilliant short story by James Joyce, and published originally as part of a collection called Dubliners, the story is set in Dublin in 1904. The setting is a Twelfth Night party held at the home of two elderly sisters and their nearly middle-aged niece, a piano teacher. The guests include an assortment of people who are active in the artistic, cultural, and political life of Dublin. Situated quietly among the party-goers are nephew Gabriel (a newspaperman) and his wife Gretta played by Anjelica Huston.

On the surface, this is a lively but rather ordinary party. There is music, dancing and feasting. There are even some recitations, and a sad, touching solo by elderly Aunt Julia who sings “Arrayed for the Bridal” in an ancient, dry voice.

Despite the appearance of friendship and good cheer, everything at the party is somehow dead. This is relieved only slightly by Freddie, who is rather drunk and always on the verge of bringing up taboo topics.

It is a sign of Huston’s genius that he is able to make the audience feel somewhat dead watching the film, yet able to hold the feeling of connection to and interest in the characters. As the party ends, Gretta hears one of the guests, Bartell D’Arcy, singing “The Lass of Aughrim” as she descends the stair to depart. Without words, she shows in a million subtle reactions on her face that this song has deep personal meaning for her—that it brings her to a great depth of feeling through the memories that it touches. Through this song, she is plunged into memories and feelings far more real than anything that has taken place at the party, and more real than anything in her daily life with her husband.

Later, alone with Gabriel, she tells him of her memories, and he, too, feels the power of the dead in the lives of the living. He too questions the reality of what the two of them have shared in their marriage, in comparison with the intense relationship which his wife experienced in the past. This causes him to reflect in a new and profound way about the meaning of his life.

As he stands alone, looking out of the window, Joyce says,

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. 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.

In every respect, this is a brilliant, even astonishing film, despite the simplicity of the story.

John Huston’s parting gift to the world was nothing less than a masterpiece.