Download:: Reframe: John Huston's 'The Dead'
John Huston was wheelchair bound and on portable oxygen when he directed his adaptation of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in 1987. At eighty years old and in failing health, he must have known this would be his last film, and as such, the final story from Joyce’s Dubliners is one hell of a choice as a final artistic statement. While Huston wasn’t given much to work with (the production budget was just $3.5 million) it’s probably surprising that he got the funds to make the film at all. Even after his success with Prizzi’s Honor two years prior, Huston’s pitch must have been very convincing, since even the most optimistic and literary-minded of studio executives would likely have assumed that “The Dead” was unfilmable. But at the end of his life, John Huston wasn’t thinking about making a blockbuster. He was clearly thinking about his legacy, and he urgently wanted this story to be part of it.
If studio execs did think The Dead was unfilmable, they can be forgiven for thinking so. On the surface, the story is not riveting stuff. It is one of the great slow burns in all of literature, with the first 80% taking place at a holiday party given by two elderly sisters and their niece in 1904 Dublin. But understanding the strange dynamic of holiday parties (a unique admixture of joy, boredom and terror), Joyce, in typical Joycian fashion, forces us to sit through familiar experiences with complete strangers—strangers whose world of reference (unless you were alive in Dublin in 1904, active in church politics, and savvy about opera) are guaranteed to be alien to you. But to get the full impact of the story you must sit through all of it.
The movie starts as the story does, following the exhausting efforts of Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, as she struggles with the endless chores that go into preparing for the party: running up and down the stairs answering the door, announcing guests, and taking coats, all while making sure the potatoes don’t boil over. Huston does an incredible job recreating this party, which accounts for an hour of the film’s 1 hour and 23 minute runtime. The large and comfortable house of the Misses Morkan (the three hostesses) gives the sense of being the best Ireland has to offer, yet it also manages to convey the sense that this says more about what Ireland had to offer at the time than anything else. The set designer deserves a lot of credit for striking the perfect balance between homey plainness and kitschy opulence that is so uniquely Irish. Outside, the dark streets of the city are beautifully lit by gas lamps and the horses and carriages are lovely in the snow. The amount of detail paid to dress, hair and makeup, and décor of the set is impressive, even down to the slight peeling and bubbling of the wallpaper in the stairway.
Despite the film being an American family’s affair, with John at the director’s helm, Anjelica Huston in front of the camera, and John Huston’s son, Tony, taking credit for the screenplay—the film manages to feel delightfully Irish. Much of that credit is due to wonderful performances by the cast’s minor characters—the majority of which are relatively unknown Irish film and stage actors. But Huston deserves a lot of the credit for the film’s authenticity as well (John lived in Ireland from 1960-1971, becoming an Irish citizen and renouncing his American citizenship). He in no way tries to simplify or caricature what it means to be Irish. Rather, he takes the many stereotypes that inhabit Joyce’s story (the drunk Freddy Malins, his browbeating disappointed mother, Mrs. Malins, the disillusioned young maid) and manages to present them all in depth and with humanity, showing a real commitment and attention to Joyce’s sensibilities on Huston’s part. If the movie engages with what it means to be Irish, it does so in the way Joyce does, which is through the range of disagreements among the guests and not their similarities. In one such memorable exchange, Gabriel Conroy is called a “West Briton” by the Irish Republican Molly Ivors, because Gabriel writes a column in The Daily Express (which she refers to as an “English rag”). She accuses Gabriel of knowing nothing of his own country, to which he replies “I’m sick of my own country. Sick of it.”
The depth and breadth of Irish social problems touched on in the film rivals that of the story and its conversation is wide ranging, from high-falutin (and at times downright pretentious) discussions of obscure contemporary tenors to Lily’s bitter retort that, “the men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” One does not have to know anything about Dublin in 1904 to know that this girl’s angry remark comes from disillusionment or betrayal, or both, but historically we know that the changing social landscape of Ireland had made marriage rates notoriously low. As such, these allusions speak to real Irish problems, including alcoholism and poverty. Kate Morkan (a wonderful Helena Carroll) is terribly concerned that a friend of the family, Freddy Malins, will show up to her party “stewed”—which of course he does (played brilliantly by Donal Donnelly in what is one of the finest and most memorable performances of a drunk ever given). And while the table flows with wine and spirits, the feast itself is modest. Each guest gets a slice of goose. A slice of ham. A potato. It’s noted that there is no applesauce. Yet we get the sense these guests are lucky to be enjoying what they have.
And since no holiday party would be complete without an embarrassing musical performance, the movie includes a scene in which the elderly Julia Morkin sings “Arrayed for the Bridal.” Julia’s voice is now thin and faltering, and she no longer has the lung capacity for Belini. It would have been easy for this scene to teeter into cruelty, but it doesn’t, just as it doesn’t in Joyce’s story. There is no hint of irony in watching the performance, and that is all due to John Huston’s direction. While she is singing, Huston takes an opportunity to show a series of closeups of knick-knacks, mementoes and photographs throughout the home. (The old photographs seem to depict Julia in her prime.) Then, a close up of some verse embroidered on a white cloth or a pillow:
“Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To hide the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.”
These lines (they are Alexander Pope’s) are not in Joyce’s story, but the addition is unobtrusive and welcome. Julia’s faltering voice over these words is a reminder that one day we too will decline, and will also require mercy. Huston’s montage of old photographs, moments that are themselves dead and gone, reminds us of our own transience, as do the monks at Mount Melleray who sleep in their coffins to remind themselves of “their last end.” Huston, contemplating his own last end, certainly earns the minor artistic license he brings to the film.
In fact what is, at least to me, the most affecting scene in the movie is not in Joyce’s story at all. It is a scene seemingly made up entirely by the Hustons, in which their invented character of Mr. Grace (played by Seán McClory) recites six verses of an old Irish poem, attributing the translation from the Gaelic to Lady Gregory. The listeners in the drawing room are spellbound, as we are, by its strange beauty, which holds our attention for the full recitation of six haunting verses.
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
My mother told me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
Mr. Grace calls the poem “Broken Vows.” This is not the poem’s name (the poem is titled Donal Og) but it seems that broken vows are a theme the Hustons wanted to coax further out of Joyce’s story. Lily’s bitter retort that men are “all palaver and what they can get out of you” and a comment, made in passing by Kate Morkan, that Lily is “not the girl she was at all” both suggest that Lily might have had a vow broken to her. Huston turns this subtle subtext into a living moment, placing Lily in the doorway behind Mr. Grace in the poem’s final verse. There’s no question that this is really lovely filmmaking.
While this is my favorite scene in the film, it is debatable whether the addition helps this movie on the whole, as a successful adaptation of “The Dead”. I would have to say that it does not. Precisely because the scene’s wonder makes it the high point of the film, it unbalances Joyce’s careful story structure and arc. The strength of the Donal Og scene, and the poem itself, actually undercuts the power of the song and scene on which Joyce’s story pivots and turns: when Gretta (Anjelica Huston) hears “The Lass of Augrim.” The awe felt by Gretta and visible on her face is too powerful and too similar to be effective twice. The camera catches the various reactions of the guests, and among these spellbound reactions is the haunted expression of Anjelica Houston. When we see her reaction to “The Lass of Augrim,” it does not pack the punch that the earlier scene did.
When Bartell D’Arcy, a celebrated Irish tenor who has refused to perform all evening, sings “The Lass of Aughrim” for the remaining guests, the melody reaches Gretta as she is descending the stairs. She stops to listen to the performance until the song is finished, and this image of Gretta standing in the stairway listening to this song is the central image of this story. But in the film, when Gabriel watches his wife’s reaction to the song it is the second time we have seen her so affected. While this scene is still beautiful, the movie loses momentum here, whereas this is where Joyce’s story catches fire, burning until the last line.
The final twenty minutes of the film depend almost entirely on the chemistry and performances of the two main characters and so, unfortunately, it ends comparatively weakly. I don’t think this is the fault of the actors. Rather, I think it has more to do with the addition of the Donal Og scene, which undercuts the power of the story’s most famous scene.
But for all that the film portrays so well, there is one very important aspect missing: a sense of depth in Joyce’s main character, Gabriel, and his desire for intimacy with his wife. Gretta standing on the stairs reacting to this song is supposed to trigger excitement, tenderness and fire in Gabriel, and without any hint of these emotions, the film’s payoff can’t achieve the emotional peak that Joyce’s story does. Of all the little exchanges and nuances that are otherwise portrayed so faithfully, it’s strange that such an important element of the story would be conspicuously absent. With such a short run time, the film could easily have added a scene establishing Gabriel’s desire for his wife on this night, as Joyce does:
“She was walking on before him so lightly and so erect that he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate into her ear. She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her. Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory.”
This would have made a beautiful sequence, walking to their carriage in the snow together, but we don’t get anything like it in the film. There’s no trace or sense of the “tender fire” Joyce attributes to Gabriel’s soul. Sadly, I believe this is on the director who did not ask for more from the actor who played Gabriel (Donal McCann), or set him up to establish more of an inner life. Such a scene could have established Gabriel’s mood, which is a big part of understanding his complex reaction to Gretta’s revelation that “The Lass of Aughrim” made her think of Michael Fury, a boy she knew in Galway when she was young. The film gets across Gabriel’s annoyance, frustration, embarrassment, jealousy, and hurt, but never his desire for his wife. Part of his “riot of emotions” is a reaction to the knowledge that when he was thinking lovingly of his wife, she was thinking of someone else. Even if that someone is long dead.
Gabriel’s realization triggers an earthshaking shift in his perspective and he suddenly sees his wife differently. How long has she locked this secret away in her heart? His new perspective is that he has played a rather insignificant part in Gretta’s life, despite having been married for many years. He begins to think of Michael Fury, who loved Gretta in a way he realizes (and she too must realize) Gabriel never has. He is experiencing a kind of separation. Looking at Gretta now asleep on her pillow, he sees her not as his wife, but as a human being, isolated by emotion and experience that no one else can ever fully understand. Just like him. Just like everyone else. It is a lonely realization, and Gabriel has the insight to feel sorry for her, looking at her with what Joyce calls “a strange, friendly pity.” Gabriel’s friendly pity is for all of us, each and every soul that is drifting alone, descending like snowflakes to our last end. The story’s final pages move through Gabriel’s emotions from jealousy to compassion, and eventually to intellectual detachment.
“One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover’s eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I’ve never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. 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. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. 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.”
Only at this point in the film with this monologue is Gabriel given an inner life, as much of the story’s ending is spoken by Gabriel word for word, only slightly adapted from Joyce’s original narrative voice. Despite some alterations, it cannot help but be beautiful, as it contains some of the most beautiful prose in English literature. Gabriel’s voiceover along with Alex North’s elegiac score play against winter landscapes of Ireland: a view of the river Shannon half frozen, twisted dark trees submerged in melting bogs, cold tombstones in a quiet, snowy graveyard. In these last few beautiful minutes, the film recovers some of the power it had lost.
Huston’s making of “The Dead” is, when all’s said and done, an honorable and artistic attempt at a monumental challenge. And, when it comes to transposing great literature to film, that is the most we can ask for from a director. But what John Huston proved is that The Dead can be filmed, and filmed well. And, if it can be filmed well it can be filmed better. To have shown that something can be done well is a legacy to be proud of, especially when the degree of difficulty is something most would not dream to touch. I hope that one day, somebody will pick up Houston’s torch and try again.