John Huston’s last film The Dead is an adaptation of one of the stories in James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” Ireland was especially dear to Huston’s heart. He lived there. His daughter Anjelica was born and raised there. This story, set during the Christmas season, in which a group of old friends (some of them very old indeed) gather together for a party fits him like a glove. It’s a gentle, subtle film, perfectly suited to be made for a man Huston’s age (81) in ill-health. Alas it was so ill that travelling to Ireland to shoot it was out of the question. And so The Dead was shot on a set constructed inside a long-empty factory in Orange County California, with a 2nd unit assigned to film a few shots of the Irish countryside at night in the snow — the hush of falling snow being a key element of the overall mise en scene. Huston, wheelchair-bound with an oxygen tank by his side, got through the shooting and editing of the film, and just before its release, expired. Consequently I found myself crying during the opening credits.
The beating heart of The Dead is Anjelica Huston. She and her father had quite a complex relationship. It got off to a rocky start professionally in 1969 with A Walk With Love and Death , a commercial failure, prized by many Hustonians, that found father and daughter in conflict in every way. But all was more that well years later with Prizzi’s Honor, which Anjelica the Oscar and stands high on the list of John Huston’s dark comedies. Here’s my favorite scene — Anjelica and the great William Hickey.
The Dead couldn’t be more different. It’s climax is a scene towards its close in which Anjelica’s character Gretta Conroy, about to leave with her husband, played by Donal McCann pauses to hear Irish tenor Frank Patterson sing “The Lass of Aughrim,” a song that brings back memories of a lost love — a youth who sang it to her outside her window in the dead of winter — and froze to death in the snow.
This is quite simply one of the greatest moments in all of cinema — accomplishing that which no novel, poem, play, opera or piece of music could ever do, because its power radiates from Anjelica Huston’s body and soul as clearly understood by her father John.