Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Dead, 1987

John Huston's final film THE DEAD from 1987, details with loving attention to detail a Christmas dinner at the house of two spinster well-to-do sisters and their niece in turn-of-the-century Ireland, attended by friends and family. Among the visiting attendees are the sisters' nephew Gabriel Conroy and his wife Greta. The evening's reminiscences bring up melancholy memories for Greta concerning her first, long-lost love when she was a girl in rural Galway. Her recounting of this tragic love to Gabriel brings him to an epiphany: he learns how little he knows about his wife whom he loves dearly. 

"Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world ... Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead".

John Huston's last film is a labor of love at several levels: an adaptation of one of the greatest pieces of English-language literature by one of Huston's favorite authors, James Joyce; a love letter to Ireland where he lived and his children grew up; and the chance to work with his screenwriter son Tony and his actress daughter Anjelica. Peter Viertel in his engaging memoir describes a typical weekend at the Huston home St Clerans in Galway (its a luxury hotel now) where Huston, when not away directing, living the life of the Irish country squire with his dogs and shooting and hunting ....Huston was - like Italy's Vittorio De Sica - one of those larger than life directors who gambled and hunted and acted in movies as varied as CHINATOWN, THE CARDINAL and utter tosh like DE SADE (Trash label) where he seemed to be enjoying himself hugely, as usual .... Viertel's novel  "White Hunter Black Heart" (which was filmed by Clint Eastwood) was about Huston filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN...

I was obsessed about Huston's THE MISFITS for a long time, I love his HEAVEN KNOWS MR ALLISON (Huston label) and those subsequent films THE UNFORGIVEN, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, FAT CITY and of course his '40s triumphs like THE MALTESE FALCON and his early '50s oddities like THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, MOULIN ROUGE and MOBY DICK. Huston was such a maverick that his later oddities like THE KREMLIN LETTER in '69 are also worth seeking out. It was great to see him in person for the launch of FAT CITY at the NFT in 1972. THE DEAD set as it is on the 6th of January, is an ideal film for this time of year ...

As my friend Martin Bradley sets the scene: THE DEAD takes place on the Feast of the Epiphany in the Dublin of 1904. It is confined, largely, to one setting, the home of the Morkan sisters, and not a great deal happens in conventional 'dramatic' terms. They entertain their guests; there is singing, dancing, recitations and much small talk but watching this film you can't imagine anywhere else you would rather be than in this company.

Finally, of course, it is 'about' much, much more. It is about love, loss and regret, those stable mainstays of great drama. In the film's closing scenes the tenor Bartell D'Arcy (Frank Patterson) sings a song, 'The Lass of Aughrim' which conjures up in the mind of Gretta (Anjelica Huston) wife of Gabriel (Donal McCann) the ghost of her first and probably greatest love, a boy who died in all certainty of a broken heart at the age of seventeen, and suddenly Gabriel realises he has never really known his wife and that he has not been the great love of her life after all. Emotionally, these scenes are incredibly powerful, firstly as Gretta recounts the circumstances of her lover's death and then as the voice in Gabriel's head sums up his own feelings. This is great cinema, the monologues superbly delivered by Huston and McCann.

But then all the performances are extraordinary. This is ensemble playing of the highest order. Added poignancy is to be had, of course, from the knowledge that Huston himself was close to death when he made this film which seems to me the culmination of his life's work. Death may well be its central theme but viewing this film is a life-enhancing experience. 
There is also the great Marie Kean as Freddie Malins' waspish mother, while Donal Donnelly plays her son Freddie, the amiable drunk (both right), and the two sisters are ideally played by Helena Carroll and Cathleen Delaney; the cast also includes Dan O'Herlihy, Sean McClory and Kate O'Toole. Its a wonderful film that will leave you seeking out James Joyce's "Dubliners" collection of stories.

I shall soon be reporting on Huston's 1963 FREUD, long unseen, with Montgomery Clift and Susannah York, when discussing Montgomery Clift soon.

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