When a major filmmaking career draws to a close, audiences - and critics - tend to sentimentalize it. This has happened in the case of John Huston, who died a few months ago. I've always respected Huston's work for its solid professionalism, but I've never been a blind or biased admirer. So it's without nostalgia or sentimentality that I welcome his last movie, ``The Dead,'' as one of the finest screen achievements in recent memory - as vital and living a film, despite its somber title, as any I've seen for a long while.
Like the story it's based on, from James Joyce's exquisite ``Dubliners,'' most of the film takes place at a Dublin dinner party in the middle of winter, 1904. The soiree is given by three sweet old ladies who have a shindig like this every year. And the guests are just the sort of people you'd meet at such an affair.
Freddy has imbibed too much, but he's on his best behavior and not embarrassing his old mother too badly. Gabriel is nervous about the speech he has to make after dinner. Gretta is a little sad because of an old memory. And a houseful of other folks are dancing, eating, and doing their best to have a good time.
Except for some interpolated dialogue, the film is strikingly faithful to Joyce's story. Hence it doesn't contain a lot of dramatic events. Most of ``The Dead'' just allows us to attend the party and get to know the colorful characters.
The film takes on a deeper meaning near the end, however. We leave the party with Gabriel and Gretta, who've been married for many years, and visit the hotel room where they'll be spending the night. Gabriel is full of love for Gretta this evening. But a song she heard at the party has reminded her of a melancholy event from her past.
She shares her memory with Gabriel and then falls quietly asleep, leaving him alone with the stillness of the night.
The last moments of the film give us his thoughts, as the camera takes us away from their little Dublin room into the vast reaches of Ireland and even the wide world itself - moving from the particular to the universal, and filling the screen with a profound sense of love and loneliness.
As an evening of extraordinarily insightful cinema, ``The Dead'' must be contemplated after it's over, when one has experienced the cumulative impact of its simple but elegant structure and its sensitive cinematography.
As an evening of diverting entertainment, however, ``The Dead'' can be savored every step of the way, as a succession of near-perfect performances glide across the screen.
The casting is impeccable - every character looks and sounds exactly right - and the major roles are played with marvelous humor and delicacy, many of them by members of Ireland's celebrated Abbey Players.
Standouts in the cast include Donal Donnelly, who sustains the tricky role of tipsy Freddy without once relinquishing tact or taste. Donal McCann, as Gabriel, gains in emotional presence as the story builds toward his crucial scene at the end. And the versatile Anjelica Huston gives Gretta a range of quiet feelings and subtle gestures that are breathtaking after ``Prizzi's Honor,'' her previous movie, where she played a boisterous Brooklynite.
Huston's way of shaping a film has never borne more impressive fruit than in ``The Dead,'' which includes not a false or a wasted moment - only the skill of a master filmmaker at the peak of his creative powers.
David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.
Anjelica Huston on her father's craft
Filming of ``The Dead'' was very much a Huston family affair. Not only did John Huston direct it, but the screenplay was written by his son, Tony. And his daughter, Anjelica, plays a central role. When she visited New York recently to help launch the picture, I asked Miss Huston how so much family involvement in ``The Dead'' came about.
``My father always had a great love for his family,'' she answered. But near the end of his life, she continued, ``he wanted to draw us all around him. And he had a need to know that we were going to be OK. I think it was ... taking care of us - and launching us, and making sure we were all on a path going somewhere.''
She added that a ``family production'' has practical advantages, too. ``We had a sort of shorthand together,'' she said with a smile. ``We knew, pretty much without talking about it, what we were feeling and thinking, and how we should go about whatever came up.''
How does Anjelica Huston remember her gifted father? ``He had many, many interests,'' she said, ``and his interests were never superficial. He was a seeker [and] a man of constant questioning, and I think he tried to engender that in us as much as possible. My mother had that, too, a little bit differently - she loved to point things out. But he wanted to know why.''
As a director, she went on, her father liked to put his trust in the skills of his performers, ``Like someone who owns a stable of racehorses, he'd sort of let 'em go and see what they did,'' she said.