One has to wonder how posterity might have treated The Dead had it not been John Huston’s final film. The movie’s brief running time and limited scenery changes impose an enigmatic fleetingness quite at odds with Huston’s typically unhurried storytelling diction, and the attempts at mimicking James Joyce’s itinerant narrative perspective dilute what might be the director’s trademark: probing the cragged topography of protagonists’ masculine existentialism. Ironically, the original text of The Dead—quite possibly Joyce’s masterpiece, especially to those without the patience required for Ulysses or the masochistic zeal necessary for Finnegan’s Wake—is a far more Hustonian tale than the cinematic adaptation: While Joyce catalogues the Morkan sisters’ winter banquet by assuming a variety of guests’ voices and hang-ups, he makes certain that the bulk of our emotional investment is banked in the insecurities of Gabriel, a middle-aged friend of the Morkans prized for his eloquence. This effectively prepares us for the sucker punch of the ending, where Gabriel humiliatingly realizes that the passion between his wife and him is little more than perfunctory, and he’s inspired to internally generate far more poetic words than he’s ever spoken or written.
Huston’s visual translation is faithful to the superficial events of the novella but not precisely the longing spirit, which seems an uncharacteristic mistake; Humphrey Bogart’s sibilating confrontation of Mary Astor channeled the subliminal sexual cynicism of Dashiell Hammett’s novel with a classy ferocity. By contrast, the bruised voiceover coda that Gabriel (Donal McCann) recites in The Dead, embarrassingly illustrated with slow pans across icy branches, misreads Joyce’s brooding core of self-doubt as though it were the prettified paradoxes of Robert Frost. The gaping disparity of effect between Huston’s debut and his valedictory effort gives a sketchy, sweeping sense of how his instincts with actors shifted over the years, but it also indicates how frustratingly literal a director he became. Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, and The Dead all include scenes of indomitable filmic mastery—the stifled reveals of self-mutilated wounds in Wise Blood can provoke uncontrollable tremors of nervous sympathy—but also fail to properly render the dour creepiness of their source material due to an insistence on textual fidelity. The Dead was certainly the most difficult piece of literature out of the three to remain faithful to (the zigzagging between vocal and internal conversation in the book can only be eluded to with match cuts and angles suggesting hidden desire and buried consternation), and yet by focusing predominantly on surface conversation and period costume, Huston manages to pump the lion’s share of Joyce’s scribbling through the chamber-theater apparatus and in the process elide most of the subtle genius.
What redeems Huston’s last gasp is the observational framing and agile editing with which the Morkan sisters’ soiree is captured. As they usher their guests, mostly two-by-two, up the stairs and into their cozily middle-class Victorian parlor, the camera follows at a distance and hesitates at intervals, almost like a child peeking around corners to watch these funny adults without making its unwelcome presence known. Most of the film’s performances are sufficient, if not possessed with that resolute Irish fire that burns through Joyce’s short stories so ebulliently, but Huston’s skill at trafficking his actors and maintaining the blustering presence of a group in the background even when investigating private conversations smartly presents the cast as a unified ensemble. If only the undercurrents of spiritual and identity confusion lapped at the banks of small talk as affectingly as in the book, the prolonged dinner sequence—with its dances, cocktails, inebriated arguments, and thick, wet wishbones—may have alone made The Dead a Huston jewel. As it is, it’s more of a curio: Essential for completists and strangely alluring to casual fans, but all too noticeably handicapped.