The great John Huston chose to make this adaptation of Joyce’s perfectly wrought tale—sometimes said to be the finest short story ever written in English—as his swan song; Huston knew that he was dying when he began it, and did not live to see it released in December of 1987. When, for instance, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) imagines his frail, elderly aunt Julia (Cathleen Delany) laid out on her deathbed, it’s impossible not to see this as Huston imagining his own death. And yet Huston’s The Dead is just as unsentimental, or perhaps as appropriately sentimental, as Joyce’s story. It’s a story that makes me cry every time I read it, and, at the end of the film, when McCann as Gabriel reads Joyce’s final lines in voice-over, I found that tears had come to my eyes. It’s an intensely affecting story about things so familiar and conventional that they should be cliché: nostalgia, tradition, the process of reflecting on oneself and one’s family, and on mortality and failure. But Joyce carries it off somehow, perhaps by refusing to let it get soggy, and by buoying it up with keen observational detail and a cutting irony. “The Dead” is, magically, ironic and sincere at once. Huston’s film preserves this to masterful effect.
The Dead also bears thinking about in relation to Huston’s long and prosperous career. It’s a much humbler film than just about anything else he made. (The only other Huston film that has the same eerie quietude about it is The Misfits , which, haunted by the soon-to-be-departed spirits of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, could also just as easily have been called The Dead.) Huston’s touch in The Dead is light, but nothing about the movie is soft. There’s a particularly lovely moment when tiny, old Aunt Julia, her little mouse eyes peeping out at an audience of her party guests, sings “Arrayed for the Bridal” in a fragile, wavering soprano (“Thirty years ago I hadn’t a bad voice, as voices go”), and Huston cuts in a montage of shots in which the camera lingers over the objects that make up her bedroom: an embroidered sampler, old photographs of more people long dead, a bible—all of the things that will be left behind when Julia goes to her grave. The tone of this montage sequence (which is Huston’s invention; its equivalent does not exist in Joyce’s story) is as delicate and nuanced and difficult to describe as that of the story itself. We could call it elegiac, but to do so would be to ignore its blissful serenity; we could call it loving, but to do so would be to miss the ambivalence about Irish tradition that has been built into the story. It’s in this wonderfully nebulous affective territory that Joyce’s “Dead” and Huston’s Dead both live.