Appellate Judge Tom Becker's Irish is up, and that is never a good thing.
John Huston's final masterpiece…
…ruined by Lionsgate.
Facts of the Case
The Feast of the Epiphany, Dublin, 1904, and the Morkan sisters, Kate (Helena Carroll, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) and Julia (Cathleen Delany) are hosting their annual holiday party. The aged, unmarried sisters have devoted their lives to the arts, particularly music—enjoying it, teaching it, singing in choirs—and among their many friends and acquaintances sharing this holiday with them is the tenor, Bartell D'Arcy (Frank Patterson).
Kate and Julia's nephew, Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann, Out of Africa) is there, of course, and he will, as always, offer the toast to thank his aunts and his cousin, Mary Jane (Ingrid Craigie, Da), for their graciousness. Also enjoying the evening is Gabriel's wife, Gretta (Anjelica Huston, The Grifters), who is sometimes a bit bemused by just how straight and responsible her husband is.
As it is every year, the evening is a success—dancing, musical performances, a recitation, a fine meal, good company, and warm, if slightly melancholy, recollections of absent friends take the chill out of the snowy night. But as they're leaving, Gabriel catches Gretta listening to Mr. D'Arcy sing a folk song, and she seems moved in a way he's never seen her. Later, Gabriel will learn of one of Gretta's absent friends and have, himself, an epiphany, a realization of the transience of existence and how the dead continue to impact the living.
James Joyce's "The Dead"—the final story in Dubliners—is considered one of the great short stories. It was also considered impossible to translate to film. It's a story of thoughts and interior monologues, a period piece without melodrama or pretty much anything in the way of action. The story climaxes with a middle-aged woman weeping over a memory of lost love triggered by hearing a folk song, and her husband ruminating to himself about the meaning of life. How could this ever be filmic and true to the spirit of Joyce?
John Huston was one of the last of his generation of great directors and his penultimate film, Prizzi's Honor, was a critical and commercial success that suggested an artist in his prime rather than at twilight. The Dead was a long-time dream project for Huston, and buoyed, perhaps, by the success of Prizzi's Honor and the knowledge that his own time was running out, the director made the film as it needed to be made, not as a literate sop to film goers, with recognizably pretty faces and visually pleasing actions supplanting ideas, but as a faithful translation of Joyce's text. The result is moody and beautiful, a haunting and affecting film that perfectly captures the rhythms and nuances of its source.
It's the stuff of legend now—Huston directing from an oxygen tent, would not live to see the film's December 1987 release. His son, Tony, wrote the script (and received an Oscar nomination) and served as his father's assistant. Huston's daughter, Anjelica, was cast in the pivotal role of Gretta, and her scenes at the end—her quiet, pained reverie on hearing the song, and later, her emotional telling of the story of a young man who died for love of her—are just beautiful.
Donal McCann is very good as the slightly too-assured and responsible Gabriel. McCann is tasked with delivering the closing monologue, an almost five-minute speech taken almost verbatim from the story, which plays over simple scenes of a snowfall mixed shots of the actor's face and the character's thoughts and memories of the evening. Wisely, McCann and Huston let the words speak for themselves; as such, the words retain their power, unadorned.
Many of the roles are played by Irish stage actors and actresses (though Carroll is originally from Scotland), and their modestly heartfelt and authentic performances fit the bill very well. Huston's camera is unobtrusive, like another party guest, gliding from this face to that, panning slowly to an old woman's face as her eyes sparkle with the memory of an exceptional tenor she once heard, slipping at one point away and peeking around a room at the souvenirs of a life, the inconsequential things that tell so much about people. Huston knows these people, and he presents them with such affection. Through small talk and quiet interactions, Huston opens up an entire world, and by the end, these people are as familiar as they'd be if we'd always known them.
This is a wonderfully evocative and moving film, one that I've been hoping would get a DVD release for some time. So, I should be happy to have this disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There was talk that Criterion was going to release The Dead, meaning we would almost definitely gotten the film with a beautifully restored picture, cleaned up audio, and worthwhile extras. Unfortunately, this never amounted to anything other than rumor.
What we get from Lionsgate is worse than their usual lousy catalogue-title dumping.
The box art, naturally, sucks. Why use the beautiful original poster art when you can just Photoshop a picture of Anjelica Huston's head into some picturesque but irrelevant scene that doesn't appear in the film? If only this was the worst part of this release.
But it gets worse.
Of course, there are no extras—not even a trailer, though you can find the quite lovely trailer for The Dead on the Internet, probably in no worse shape than it would have turned up here. There's also a ready-made, 60-minute feature, John Huston and the Dubliners, made as a companion piece to the film. Is this a film that deserves something better than a bare-bones release? Absolutely. But I guess I should be happy just to have this on DVD after waiting so long…
But it gets worse.
The Dead was shot in 1.85 aspect ratio—only the Lionsgate box claims that the presentation is 1.78. In truth, while it seems a bit tight to the frame, I can't say for certain that the aspect ratio is screwed up here. I tried, unscientifically, checking it against an old VHS and some online sources, and the picture does seem a bit cut off on all four sides. I can say with certainty that the print Lionsgate used has seen better days, that it looks dull, and some scenes look like they were sourced from an entirely different print. I wasn't expecting a remastered picture, but 1987 isn't so long ago that you couldn't expect a better image.
But it gets worse. Much worse.
The DVD case lists a running time of 73 minutes. I know this film runs over 80 minutes (83, I believe, with the PAL DVD running a bit shorter due to speed up). I just assumed the 73 minute runtime was an editorial error, so when I put the disc in, I used the scene selections to navigate to the end. Sure enough, it was 73 minutes as the credits faded to black.
So, I started watching the film, to see if I could ascertain what was removed to shorten the running time. Well, the answer was easy: Lionsgate dropped an entire 10-minute stretch right near the start of the film. From around eight minutes in to the 18-minute mark is just gone. Character introductions, bits of business that will factor into the story later—approximately 12.5 percemt of the film—just not there. There's just a huge jump that eliminates about a dozen key scenes. It's like if you went to the movies and the projectionist just decided not to show Reel 2, you know, because he wanted to get home early.
Mind you, there's no reason for this chunk of film to be gone. This isn't an exploitation film with a shadowy history that's played under a variety of names, with different versions having different lengths. At best—and this is just speculation—this might have been the print used when The Dead was shown on commercial television somewhere, the 10 minutes lopped off to fit the film in a 90-minute slot. Whatever the case, it is absolutely disgraceful that Lionsgate would release the film like this. It's beyond careless. Needless to say, particularly since it happens so early on, it renders the film unwatchable, destroying Huston's meticulous rhythm and pacing.
Isn't there anyone at Lionsgate who checks the print to make sure they're putting the right film in the box? Maybe checks to make sure the run time, aspect ratio, and whatever else, are in place? Even an intern who's not familiar with the film should be able to tell time. See—73 minutes and 83 minutes are not the same thing. Lionsgate is not a sham company; they've been in business for a while and have released some worthwhile discs. Didn't anyone think that 73 minutes was awfully light for a 1987 feature? How could they not know that they were releasing a version that's 10 minutes too short? It's mind boggling.
While I would hardly call it a rabid fan base, The Dead certainly has a following. I really hope that people who've been anticipating this film's release on DVD let Lionsgate know what they think of this truncated, badly presented monstrosity.
Lionsgate has given us some good releases and some crappy releases, but this appalling piss-on-the-memory-of-John-Huston treatment of the director's final film is a new low. Shame on them for trying to foist off on the public an incomplete and wretched looking version of this great film.
The Dead sometimes turns up on cable—I saw it not too long ago on IFC, complete and uncut, in a beautiful aspect-ratio correct widescreen presentation. If you see it coming to a cable channel near you, DVR it, TiVo it, break out your old VHS recorder—even if you film it with your cell phone, you'll get a better rendering than what Lionsgate offers here.
This is a great film undone by a stunningly irresponsible disc.
Today, call me "The Hangin' Judge," and call Lionsgate guilty, guilty, guilty.
Editor's Note: (5 November 2009)
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 mailing address and a scan/attachment of the purchase receipt
• Fax (310) 222-5562 with mailing address and copy of purchase receipt
• Snail Mail purchase receipt along with mailing address to: Lionsgate "The Dead" Recall, 20102 S Vermont Ave, Torrance, CA 90502-1361
Please call (800) 650-7099 with any additional questions.
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