Picks and Pans Review: The Dead

updated 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

It's a pleasure to report that John Huston's last film is also one of his (and the year's) finest. Poetic, powerful and haunting, the posthumously released film, based on a James Joyce short story, celebrates the immortality of love. Huston dedicated the film to Maricella Hernandez, his longtime companion (she was with him when he died in August at 81), and the movie is the director's most personal and poignant work. The Missouri-born Huston revered the Irish bard Joyce above all other literary giants. The Dead is set in Ireland, the country Huston adopted as his own in 1952, and everyone in the superb 24-member cast boasts an Irish heritage. Tony Huston, John's son, wrote the scrupulously faithful screenplay. And Anjelica Huston, who won an Oscar under her father's direction for Prizzi's Honor, delivers the most heartrending performance of her career. She is Gretta, the wife of an Irish journalist, played with keen intelligence by Donal McCann. The couple has left the kids at home—and taken a hotel room—to come out on this snowy night in 1904 for a party at the Dublin home of the husband's two aunts. Huston takes his time building the atmosphere of the party and introducing the guests (note Donal Donelly's delightfuly stewed Freddy) because it was the passing of this robust hospitality and humor in a "thought-tormented age" that Joyce mourned. Dressed to leave and standing on the stairway, Gretta later hears the voice of a guest (the famed tenor Frank Patterson) singing on the floor above. She is transfixed. Years before, a lovesick boy had sung that song to her. Huston holds the camera steady on the woman for the length of the song, letting the joy and agony once locked in her heart now show on her face. It is an audacious shot, exquisitely realized by Huston and his daughter. Equally moving is the climactic hotel scene in which Gretta tearfully tells her husband that the boy had died of love for her. Shattered, the husband realizes he has never known a feeling of such intensity—a love that could still be felt from beyond the grave. Huston interpreted Joyce's story as a call to live life vigorously, to leave an imprint. Huston most certainly did. Though gravely ill and hooked up to an oxygen tank while filming this movie, Huston found work the best way to rail against withering age. "Better pass boldly into that other world," wrote Joyce, "in the full glory of some passion." The Dead, alive with John Huston's passion for his craft and those he loved, is a movie masterwork. (PG)

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