John Huston’s talent was in the insinuation of the unseen environment lying beyond closed doors. Even in lesser films, like Key Largo, one can feel the cruel and merciless outdoor fighting beyond the set. Our comfort in life is temporary — an endless guerilla battle where humanity has been pitted against mother earth. Heat especially seemed to figure in the majority of Huston’s films, with the glistening warmth of the jungle oppressing his paranoid leads, or the dry desert sun unveiling the selfish depths of the human soul. In The Dead, his final film, the environment turns to wintry Ireland, but it’s the warm interiors that still prevail.
Huston would be celebrating his 110th birthday on August 5th. One of the cinema’s greatest filmmakers, he maintained an unusual and vibrant consistency over the nearly five decades of his directorial career. The Dead, Huston’s last film, premiered at the Venice Film Festival less than a week after his death. Critics couldn’t help noting the irony of the film’s title and they warmly praised his last effort. Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times for the film’s American release in December said, “Who would have thought the old man had so much passion in him?” Huston, adapting a story by James Joyce, crafted a near perfect send off to a near perfect career, somehow encapsulating everything that came before, while also standing in as a confession; a last days admission that living long and comfortably does not come with living peacefully.
The Dead is structured through two large scenes: a Christmas dinner sequence that takes up the majority of the running time, and an intimate reprieve to a local hotel. Rooted in the concerns and passions of domesticity (i.e. the fear that a drunk friend will cause a scene, or that one may be accused of not being the perfect host), the film feels small in scale. In some ways, it serves as a natural chaser to the more grandiose and romantic domestic dramas of classic Hollywood. As a double feature with Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis or John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, it would illuminate the beautiful naivety of those visions, reflecting darkly on the souls of the people who might inhabit those period settings.
Huston always seemed less concerned with myths of any Hollywood director. Romance was not a part of his game, as his cinema felt adult and rooted in the real world. His characters ached with despair not through histrionics, but through silences and glances. It seems miraculous that he did not get his start in silent cinema as his characters quivered with unspoken fears and crippling burdens that translate so effortlessly through the screen. At the heart of most of Huston’s films is a tug of war between expectation and freedom: falling into line means living comfortably, true freedom often means suffering. What makes a good life?
The confidence of The Dead lies in the build up to this question. For most of the running time, a mask of artificiality hangs over the proceedings. Characters don’t quite say what they mean, and the stakes seem astonishingly low. Huston builds empathy and comfort by way of crafting a domestic life that seems a reprieve from the snowy Irish landscape. In spite of the apparently petty concerns of those who live in this world, one may feel welcomed by it given the circumstances.
It’s why the one-two punch of the film’s ending, as the most generous and put together couple retreat to a local hotel, feels all the more hardening. Gretta (Angelica Huston) reveals memories of her lost love, and the world seems to unravel. Her husband, Gabriel (Donal McCann), wonders what inspired this confession, and as she falls asleep reflects on his own inadequate life as he will never live up to his romantic rival whose life was cut short. In death, the young man’s life has more meaning than his comfortable and secure one ever did. The confidence of Gabriel’s love for Gretta isn’t fractured, but his insecurity in her capacity for love is gone. In this final note of retrospective, what does Gabriel have? Facing death, what can we say our life was worth?
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.