The American Society of Cinematographers

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Presidents Desk
Post Focus
DVD Playback
The Dead
10th Victim/Torso
The Wizard of Oz
ASC Close-Up
The Dead (1987)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Lionsgate Home Video, $14.98

John Huston’s The Dead, which Huston directed at the age of 81 and completed only months before his death, was his 37th theatrical feature and, quite possibly, his best — no small claim in a career that included The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Prizzi’s Honor. In fact, Huston stands almost alone among great directors as a man who did his finest, most ambitious and most audacious work at the end of his career. Whereas his best early films (Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, etc.) were excellent but conventional, beginning in the late 1960s, he embarked on a series of movies that eschewed classical storytelling in favor of elliptical narratives, contemplative dialogue and bold graphic choices. How many young, independent upstarts would take the risks of Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City or Wise Blood? Although there were detours into more traditional fare — The Man Who Would Be King and Annie, the trajectory of Huston’s career was that of a man who began at an artistic peak with his directorial debut The Maltese Falcon and steadily got better and bolder.

The Dead is the kind of final film most directors long for and few achieve, a synthesis and summation of Huston’s career in which everything he has worked toward achieves thematic and stylistic purity. Like most of Huston’s movies, it is an adaptation of a classic work of literature, a short story by James Joyce from his Dubliners collection. It is the kind of story Hollywood often deems “unfilmable”: it consists of only a couple of scenes, is short on action and depends largely on internal thoughts and casually overheard snippets of conversation. What little story there is takes place at a Christmas party in 1904 Dublin; two aged sisters and their niece (all of whom have devoted their lives to music) invite a group of friends and family into their home for a night of food, drink and song. The first two-thirds or so of Huston’s film divide focus among many partygoers, with no character emerging as a lead. There are hints, however, of what is to come, as Huston shoots action from the back of the head belonging to Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), the hostesses’ nephew and the man from whose point of view the film will end.

The second and final act of the story takes place between Gabriel and his wife, Gretta (Anjelica Huston), as they take a cab back to their hotel and retire for the evening. Gretta tells her husband a story about the first young man she ever loved, and the tale is so powerful and devastating it forces Gabriel to acknowledge he does not really know his wife at all and has never really known true love. That is it as far as plot is concerned, yet The Dead is as broad in scope as any of Huston’s epics — it is just that the scope is emotional rather than physical or temporal. In one night and a handful of locations, Huston and his son Tony (who wrote the screenplay) ask profound questions about love, art, faith, marriage, alcoholism and just about every other issue that concerned Huston throughout his 50 years in film. The ensemble nature of the piece and the richness of Joyce’s source material (which Tony adapts quite faithfully) allow Huston to ponder these topics without forcing them, and the surface simplicity allows the emotional wallop of the climax to sneak up on the viewer.       
While all of the components of The Dead, from the screenplay and performances to the costume design and editing, are flawless, a great deal of the film’s impact comes from the understated-but-sumptuous images of director of photography Fred Murphy, ASC. Murphy was justly nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his work on the film, which uses light, camera movement and color to generate an almost palpable sense of loss and nostalgia. Murphy’s mastery of his craft is immediately evident when the guests arrive at the party in the film’s opening minutes: by contrasting the cool blues of the night exteriors with the warm candlelight and amber palette of the old sisters’ home, the cinematographer visually establishes the main setting as a welcoming, familial haven. Once inside the house, Murphy’s camera subtly glides from character to character and room to room, making the viewer an additional guest at the celebrations. As in Joyce’s short story, we witness random bits of behavior and overhear often nonsensical dialogue, just like at a real party.

The major accomplishment of Murphy and Huston is to give the impression everything is casual and unplanned when, of course, the whole film is designed around an accumulation of visual and narrative detail that culminates in the movie’s overwhelming final scene. This is sheer filmmaking perfection in which Murphy and Huston place their camera and lights with absolute precision yet give the audience the sense life is being captured on the fly. The movie’s reputation as a masterpiece has made its absence on DVD a reason for despair on the part of many film buffs, but Lionsgate has finally filled the void. From the lush candlelight of the party to the bleak, almost noir shadings of the film’s end, the disc’s lovely transfer preserves every nuance of Murphy’s cinematography, and the film’s equally delicate sound design is superbly mastered in Dolby 2.0. There are no supplementary features, but the low retail price and excellence of the film itself make The Dead a vital part of any DVD library.

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