Updated 12/12/2009 - Please read the "Correction" section for information regarding the cut of the film on the first release of the DVD and the replacement program. My replacement has arrived and it features the full running time.
Legendary director John Huston's last film, The Dead, was a family affair. His son Tony adapted the script from a short story by James Joyce, and his daughter Anjelica has one of the two main roles in the picture. This is as it should be, as the film is one that centers on family. The Dead is a movie about remembering times past and the connections that bring us together, as well as the secrets that we hold that keep us apart.
The Dead takes place in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Eve 1904. Three sisters (played by Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany, and Ingrid Craigie) are hosting a dinner for family and friends. The guests come, they enjoy a little song, and then they partake of a goose feast. Amongst the guests is Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), the nephew of the two older hostesses, and his wife, Greta (Huston). Throughout the meal, the many attendees share their love of music and their memories of favorite singers, discuss religion, and largely get on well. There is some witty interplay between the two drunks, the good-natured Freddy (Donal Donnelly) and the self-centered Mr. Browne (Dan O'Herlihy), a flirt who judges the younger man but fails to see that he's just as pickled. There is also honor paid to the ladies who have done so much to gather everyone together.
Following the dinner, and after most of the guests have gone, one of the lingerers, a professional singer (Frank Patterson), gives a private performance, and his sad song inspires a melancholy in Greta. The moment marks a seismic shift, taking The Dead from a story about communal nostalgia and celebration to an intimate coupling and private sadness. Gabriel senses his wife's distance, and when they are back at their hotel, gets her to open up. She tells the story of a young man who sang her that song when she was a teenage girl and how he died from his love for her. The implication is that she died with him, at least emotionally. It's a wonderful scene, the bravura moment for Anjelica Huston. Her monologue is a powerful recounting of lost passion, a heartbreaking display of sorrow that is so exhausting for Greta, she immediately passes out, disappearing into slumber.
Here The Dead shifts again, getting even more intimate. The final scene of the movie is another monologue, but this time an inner monologue. Gabriel watches the snow fall outside his window, and he contemplates his wife's story, laments the lack of feeling in his own life, and also ponders the fate that awaits them all, the one that found his wife's true love at such a young age. Though the whole of the finale passes without Donal McCann opening his mouth, his performance here is no less memorable than Huston's. There is a subtle juxtaposition between the woman who is unafraid to feel, who lets her emotions pour out, and the man who can never find the same courage.
The Dead was nominated for an Oscar for Dorothy Jeakins' costume designs, and a large part of why this film works so well is the meticulous attention to detail paid by Jeakins, as well as production designers Stephen Grimes and Dennis Washington. The clothes and the sets are elaborate without being ostentatious. They make the story believable without ever overshadowing it. The whole of The Dead is understated in a way that makes it all the more realistic. It is not as attention grabbing as most costume dramas are, John Huston prefers the focus to be on the writing and the people and not the setting. His is a quiet film, one that grows quieter the longer it runs, from the sounds of a party all the way to silence. The final image is of snow falling in the sky, no words, only accompanied by plaintive music that hangs on to the very end, then stopping for a breath, the sky turning to nothing.
John Huston passed away in August of 1987, and The Dead was released that December. I can't think of a more perfect finish for a versatile filmmaker. Huston had debuted as a director in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon, a movie that almost literally starts with a bang. What, then, could be more fitting than a final fadeout that echoes with such poignancy without ever making a sound.
Correction Department: Thanks to some eagle-eyed readers and a message from one of my DVD Talk colleagues, I've been alerted to the fact that the cut of the movie that appears on this disc is not the full cut of the movie. Having been many years since last I saw The Dead, this slipped right by me. Apparently, a full ten minutes has been cut from the beginning portion of the film. This radically changes any assessment of the Lionsgate DVD. What excuse could there be for such a trim? None, of course, and as of yet, none has been offered.
What has been offered, however, is a replacement. Anyone in possession of a cut version can exchange it for the full version. It's easy to tell if you have the wrong disc, the packaging will say 73 minutes on it, and the catalogue number on the DVD itself is 26399. If you see a version that has any of this info, it is wrong; the replacement disc clearly lists an 83 minute running time, and the number on the disc is 27301. These numbers are also the proof of purchase numbers on the back cover bar code, so disc and cover should match.
Below is the original statement I received from Lionsgate on how to replace the disc.
"STATEMENT RE: THE DEAD:
It has come to our attention that due to a technical malfunction, the initial DVD shipment of John Huston's THE DEAD contained an incomplete version of the film. We deeply apologize to all our consumers for this unfortunate error and want to offer them an opportunity to replace their current copies with the complete version as soon as it is available to ship the week of November 23rd. We regret this inconvenience, as Lionsgate is committed to providing our consumers the highest quality home entertainment experience.
All consumers who purchased a copy and wish to receive the new complete version should do one of the following:
EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org with their address and a scan/attachment of their receipt
FAX (310) 222-5562 with their address and copy of their receipt
MAIL their receipt along with a note including their address to: 20102 S Vermont Ave Torrance, CA 90502"
The Dead is presented on DVD for the first time in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer.
The image quality is very good, with nice rendering of the movie's soft colors, appropriately dark shadows, and no print damage. The resolution isn't super sharp, but it's a softly lit film and it does not suffer as a result.
The original soundtrack is given a new 2.0 mix in Dolby Digital that sounds clean, with no glitches or extraneous sounds. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
The Dead comes in a standard plastic keepcase with an outer slipcover. The actual cover design is garish and totally inappropriate for the movie. I am not sure whom the studio actually thought a poorly photoshopped image of Anjelica Huston's big head would appeal to, or what it is they expect it to suggest about the film, but there it is.
There are no extras except for a handful of Lionsgate trailers. Given that The Dead has not been available on DVD in North America until now, you'd think there would be a little more fanfare. Some information about James Joyce? A tribute to John Huston? A gallery looking at the Oscar-nominated costumes? It's not like it's hard to think these things up, people.
The Dead is Highly Recommended. Released in 1987, John Huston's final film, an adaptation of James Joyce, is a touching elegy for a great filmmaker's career. A quiet story about love lost and time spent, The Dead has incredible resonance. I'm glad it's finally available again, and in time for Christmas, too. Watch it yourself this year and take a moment to reflect on everything this wonderful movie has to say.
Just make sure you get the right version, all right?
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.