The Dead (1987)

Synopsis:

The year is 1904. The place is Dublin, Ireland. A group of friends and family members come together for the annual holiday dinner hosted by three well-respected spinsters. The night is filled with joy, melancholia and revelations.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“One by one, we’re all becoming shades.”

When I first saw the movie poster, I immediately thought of Jack Clayton’s phantasmagoric opus The Innocents (1961). Although it does have a subplot about the “ghosts of the past,” The Dead has nothing to do with poltergeists. It is in fact a meticulously crafted, heartwarming Christmastime movie.

The film is also director John Huston’s (The Maltese Falcon) last film. It seems appropriate that he ended his career with a Valentine to his cherished Irish ancestry. The Dead was a deeply personal project for Huston, and he nearly breathed his last breath on the set of the movie — he died shortly after editing the movie.

Huston directed the film from a wheelchair while hooked up to an oxygen tank (he was suffering from emphysema). I can’t function when I have a bad cold so I can’t imagine shooting a film under these conditions. It’s truly remarkable that such a deadly sick person was able to make such an extraordinarily well-paced movie.

Based on a short story by Irish novelist James Joyce (you can read the story here) and adapted by the director’s son, Tony Huston, The Dead is an austere, reflective and moving comedy-drama about family, friendship, love and all the little things that make life special. It’s also about how the past haunts us when we least expect it.

One of the film’s strengths is its ability to capture the smallest details. Nothing escapes director Huston’s sharp eye. The filmmaker uses the camera as a “fly-on-the-wall.” A smile, a disapproving look, a face lost in deep thoughts, all these gestures reveal important truths and unexpected surprises.

The Dead takes place largely indoors, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better-looking movie. “Eloquently elegant” is how I would describe Fred Murphy’s (The Trip to Bountiful and Hoosiers) camera work. Alex North’s (A Streetcar Named Desire and Spartacus) wispy music score helps create the proper mood.

Although this is a true ensemble effort, Angelica Huston (the director’s daughter) and Irish actor Donal McCann (Stealing Beauty) have the best written roles in the movie. McCann gives a touching toast. He also delivers the haunting monologue that closes the film. Angelica’s revelation near the end of the movie will break your heart. Dan O’Herlihy (RoboCop) also has some wonderful moments as the boozy Mr. Browne.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

It seems that titles do matter. If they had called it “An Irish Christmas,” I’m almost sure the film would have become a popular Christmas movie. I try to watch The Dead every year during the holidays. It deserves to be right next to perennial Christmas favorites It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story. It’s also a great selection for St. Patrick’s Day. Color, 83 minutes, Rated PG.

18 responses to “The Dead (1987)

  1. I’ve always wondered about this one. I remember when it was released back in ’87, and I was surprised it was directed by the guy who’d done The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo…I’d figured he was long done with directing. And the title turned me off a bit, too…I just wasn’t interested in seeing it. But now, after reading your review, I’m more than interested in checking it out. Perhaps next Christmas I’ll give it a watch!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Because of his love for all things Irish, it does make sense that Huston directed this simple period piece. However, I always found strange that this big-macho director was chosen to make the musical Annie…

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      • Oh lord, I forgot about that…not unlike Sidney Lumet making ‘The Wiz’, I guess. (Though I never did see it…who knows, it could be more crime and killing than musical).

        Liked by 1 person

        • The Wiz is one of those “like or hate” movies. I liked it, but I do understand its detractors. It’s a bit heavy-handed. Like Annie, it does feel like the wrong person was behind the camera. Norman Jewison (I liked Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar), or maybe Robert Wise, would have been better choices.

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