James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” is a compact beauty, the final—and best, I think—story in his collection Dubliners. The events of the story take place during and just after a gathering on the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) in 1904 Dublin, at the home of two spinster sisters; anyone who has read the story will certainly remember the final sentences, in which the central character, Gabriel Conroy, experiences his own epiphany as his wife, Gretta, describes her first love as a young girl in Galway.
The film critic Pauline Kael described John Huston (age eighty, and suffering from emphysema) directing his film version of The Dead “from a wheelchair, jumping up to look through the camera, with oxygen tubes trailing from his nose to a portable generator.” The Dead (Lionsgate) was released in theatres in 1987, just a short time after Huston’s death. I first saw it then, and twenty-two years later could still recall a moment near the end of the film, as Donal McCann (playing Gabriel) looks up at Gretta (played by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica), who has paused on a staircase in mid-descent. She is caught up in the memories evoked by a piece of music heard faintly from the other room, and he finds himself deeply moved by something in her expression. Huston extends that wordless moment so that it becomes the silent heart of the entire quiet film, and we, too, are wholly caught up in it.
The film was not released on DVD until November 2009. It was—and is—a worthy capstone to Huston’s career of nearly fifty years.