Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Dead

The Dead (John Huston, 1987) An annual Epiphany dinner held by the Morkan sisters (Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany) creates an epiphany for their nephew, Gabriel (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) in the legendary director's last film, a film every bit as strong as his first (The Maltese Falcon way back in 1941) and in many ways far, far more subtle.

You look back on the accomplishments of Huston's career—the classics like Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, the grandiose films of the '50's, his WWII documentaries, and "unfilmable" projects like Moby Dick, The Bible: In the Beginning..., Reflections in a Golden Eye, Wise Blood and Under the Volcano, and the occasional mis-step like Beat the Devil, Casino Royale, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Phobia, or The MacKintosh Man*—to "go out" on this simple, elegant adaptation of one of his favorite authors' (James Joyce) short stories, working with his kids (Tony wrote the screenplay, Anjelica stars and in many ways is the "center" of the film), set in the land he loved—Ireland—where he lived and filmed for so many years.  An insatiable gambler on- and off-set, this one he was "all in" and left the table a winner.

Tough project, too.  Most of it set in one room, a large part around a dinner table, with fine singing (and in one case, not—but the guests are graceful in their praise—and the director moves away from the elderly actress singing, having trouble with lip-syncing the dubbed song, and charitably meanders to another room, dwelling on the cherished collections of that character's rich life, instead).  Huston was in frail health, directing from a wheelchair using a monitor in another room to keep the sound of his by-now always required air compressor from the filming.

Graceful is the word for The Dead, and despite the title, it only periodically succumbs to Irish melancholy.  It centers around a celebration, after all, a once-a-year special ocassion in which, who knows, it may be the last time some of the group might be thereBest to keep the spirits up, the praise high, and the liquor slightly rationed.  And there aren't any small parts here, if the lines are unevenly distributed, there are bits of business, reaction shots, ensemble acting and quite a bit of dancing to keep things busy.

I just wish (selfishly) the host had stuck around to throw another party.

There is a lot of love in this shot, displayed on-screen and off

* Just imagine if his last film was Annie—which, in itself, was a weird untypical chancey project for him to take on!

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