Holiday Viewing: The Dead

The shadow of Christmas past hangs long over Huston's classic

A lion in winter: Director John Huston on the set of his adaptation of James Joyce's The Dead, with his daughter Anjelica and co-star Donal McCann. (Image courtesy of Vestron Video)

O, the rain falls on my heavy locks
And the dew wets my skin,
My babe lies cold …

That tragic refrain hangs over a most unexpected literary adaptation: The Dead, John Huston's version of James Joyce's snow-smothered novella.

Few that grew up on macho dramas like The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre would really expect Huston's swan song to be a Bergman-esque treatise on grief and Irish identity. Yet in some ways, it's no surprise that the aging Hibernophile Houston was drawn to this story. Richard Linklater, who screens it Wednesday as part of his Jewels in the Wasteland series at AFS Cinema, called it "one of the great last films ever made. [Huston] was hooked up to an oxygen tank when he made it, and he was already dead when it came out."

"The Dead" is the final section in Joyce's short story collection Dubliners: arguably his most accessible book, but it almost never found an audience. After a near-miss chance at publication in 1905, it took another nine years before it saw print. In the interim, the young writer drafted Stephen Hero, rewrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, bounced around Europe, and dabbled in cinema management and tweed export. That the 20-something-old Joyce could evoke the tragedies of aging as perfectly as he does first hinted at his position in the great authors of the 20th century. It is also why, against all odds, it became arguably Huston's most tragic and personal film.

In Huston's version, the opening act evokes Altman, with a medley of characters floating in and out of shot and conversation. Yet Huston has no interest in Altman's whimsical dalliances with the working class. Nor does he share Altman's fixation on faux-naturalism, with characters tumbling over each other's dialogue. Here politeness reigns, as "The Dead" centers on Ireland's upper-middle class, the independently wealthy that can afford to take a month's holiday, or that can hold a massive dinner party at the end of Christmas.

It is to such a party that erstwhile intellectual Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston) have been invited. They are merely one of the throng, but as the night goes on, their personal dramas overtake all others.

Joyce's novella is a Christmas book, and yet not. It is ambiguously dated, other than sometime in the wake of Pope Pius X's 1903 visit to Dublin. The script makes the date explicit: January 6, 1904. That's very specific, because it is the day after Twelfth Night.

For residents of the British Isles, America does Christmas backwards. Putting up the decorations while the Thanksgiving turkey is still cooling (if such a date was celebrated there) seems like a recipe for broken ornaments and pine needles in the carpet. Instead, the tree and trimmings go up as close to Christmas Eve as possible, and stay up until the 5th of January, the Twelfth Night of Christmas.

By placing the party on the following day, the Feast of the Epiphany, there's the desperation of extending the unreality of the season for one more day. And yet the bubble is not merely about to pop: There are knives right at its skin, with rumbling, loaded conversations about alcoholism, aging, Irish national identity, the vulgarity of modern culture, the power of the Catholic Church, and lost loves. Everyone is clinging to a memory or a dream, and the tighter they cling, the more it evades them.

It's not just that The Dead is one of Huston's finest, if most tragically overlooked, films. It's that it's also his most intimate. Just as the fragile and aging Haskin sisters gather everyone they can close to them, so the director worked from a script from his son Tony, and with his daughter Anjelica as Gretta, holder of a tragic secret. The swan may have sung, but those that should have been were at his shoulder to hear his melody.

Richard Linklater presents The Dead as part of his Jewels in the Wasteland series, Dec. 6, 7:30pm, AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35. Tickets at

Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.

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