Then there’s James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” and John Huston’s movie THE DEAD.
Rarely are a movie and its source material such well-met equals.
My God, this movie is good.
The Book (1914)
“The Dead” is the closing story in a collection by James Joyce called The Dubliners. This collection had a long strange trip to publication, being rejected eighteen times by fifteen publishers. One time it was accepted and then rejected because the printer found one of the stories objectionable and refused to set it. Another printer burned the proofs.
The story starts with guests arriving at a party given by two unmarried sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, on January 6, 1904—the Feast of the Epiphany. It ends in a Dublin hotel room, where the nephew of Kate and Julia, a college professor named Gabriel Conroy, sees himself suddenly as “a pitiable fatuous fellow.”
His wife Gretta has just confessed a passionate affair in her youth with a boy named Michael Furey, who died for love of her. What stirred Gretta’s memories is a song she heard at the party, “The Lass of Aughirm.” Her lover used to sing it to her.
As he watches Gretta sleeping, Gabriel perceives that he does not know her, this woman with whom he lives and with whom he has had children. He never felt toward any woman the passion that Michael Furey felt toward her.
Snow continues to fall. Gabriel imagines the death of his aunt Julia, who is frail, and the death that comes to all. He feels his soul approaching “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”
“The Dead” has the reputation of being one of the finest short stories ever written. It does not seem to be doing anything remarkable as it goes along—it is difficult to pinpoint its artistry. But it builds upon itself and ends in a way that you know is brilliant, even if you cannot explain why.
The Movie (1987)
John Huston directed 37 movies over a 46-year career. THE MALTESE FALCON was the first. THE DEAD was the last. He mostly had to direct the movie from another room, speaking to the actors through a microphone. He strong-armed the angel of death all through filming and did not live to see it released.
John Huston had Irish citizenship and lived in Galway, Ireland, for twenty years. He lived a rich and colorful life. In 1987 he was eighty years old, used a wheelchair, and needed oxygen. All these made him the perfect director to bring this Irish story about passion and death to the screen.
The opening shot is of a Dublin street in blue winter light. There is a soft, welcoming glow in the windows of a tall townhouse—the place where the guests gather. At the party, they have easy, polite conversations, except when the subject of music comes up. Music calls up another life entirely—more emotional, less amenable to reason.
A guest recites a poem called “Broken Vows.” (“You have taken the East from me. You have taken the West from me.”) It brings all conversation to a stop and prefigures Gretta’s encounter with the melancholy song that reminds her of the lover who died.
The movie has a delicate, beautiful score by Alex North.
Where it is going
Toward the end of the film, Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston) stands on the stairs listening to a tenor named Mr D’Arcy sing “The Lass of Aughirm.” She listens as if in a trance. Her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) stares at her, not understanding.
Later that night in their hotel, Gretta tells Gabriel about her first love, Michael Furey. The scene, which plays out via two monologues, first hers and then his, is a powerhouse.
Where you can see it
Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu, and YouTube have it for sale or rent. Amazon Prime members can watch it for free.
The story of the movie
YouTube has several clips available, including “The Lass of Aughirm” scene (another powerhouse). Here is the official trailer.
But there is another trailer, a commentary by Dan Ireland. He was head of acquisitions for Vestron Pictures, which produced the movie after initially passing on it. Ireland talks about how the movie got made and why he thinks it is great. (“It’s a tea party, but it’s John Huston’s tea party.”)
Lindsay Edmunds blogs about robots, writing, life in southwestern Pennsylvania, and sometimes books and movies at Writer’s Rest. She is the author of a novel about love in the age of artificial intelligence: Cel & Anna.
- The Dead (short story) – By James Joyce (redvinylchair.com)
- You (Plural): An Interview with Filmmaker David Vaipan (melodyandwords.com)
- Spirit of film: John Huston (hitchcocksvertigo.com)