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The Dead
  • Composed by Alex North
  • Varèse Sarabande / 1987 / 44m

The final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, The Dead follows a group of Irish people who gather from all over the country in a big house at the turn of the 20th century, concerned with small matters such as life and death.  It was the last film directed by the legendary John Huston, 80 years old at the time and apparently directed with him sitting in a wheelchair, attached to an oxygen supply, and having to spend much of the time communicating with the set from outside, watching on a monitor.  Despite that, it was widely acclaimed upon its release (posthumously).

The film was the fifth of Huston’s to receive a score by the great Alex North.  After working together on the magnificent The Misfits in 1960 with such successful results, it would be almost two decades before they resumed their relationship in 1979 with Wise Blood; and North went on to score the director’s last three movies – Under the Volcano (an extraordinary score even by North’s standards), Prizzi’s Honour and this.

Alex North

Alex North

While the composer’s reputation may primarily have been as someone who could write the most uncompromising, modern, challenging orchestral music, in his locker he also had a tremendous gift for melody and The Dead is perhaps his most lilting, traditionally beautiful score.  Much of it is based on the song “The Lass of Aughrim”, an Irish adaptation of the traditional English song “The Lass of Roch Royal” which features prominently in Joyce’s story.  It’s an exquisite melody and North turns it into the most beautiful main theme; his small ensemble of a few strings plus harp, flute, oboe, clarinet and occasionally a keyboard produces the most gutwrenching sound.  The Irish flavour here couldn’t be further from the schmaltzy Hollywood one which was so prominent in film music a decade or so later – this is real music of real feeling, so delicately emotional.

Elsewhere there is a little tension – “Gabriel’s Mournful Reflections” in particular is outstanding in the stretched emotions it conveys, the contrast between a lengthy section of slightly jagged rumination with the beautiful statement of the theme later in the cue worthy of special note.  This is a very short score (a shade under twenty minutes even including a vocal version of “The Lass of Aughrim” sung by Frank Patterson) but just perfectly-rounded and so beautiful.

Being so short, the label included another score on the album to round it out – the first CD release of North’s Journey Into Fear, a 1975 thriller directed by Daniel Mann.  (The score did subsequently see a slightly expanded issue from the Citadel label, paired with a compilation of North themes, in 1998.)  It is a completely different score from The Dead in every way, so unrelated that I can’t imagine anyone would ever think of listening to them together if they weren’t put on the same album as they are here; but of course it’s great that the album producers saw fit to include a second score.

The film was a fairly straightforward one for its time, not particularly well-received; and it was unusual indeed to find North tackling such fare (he did it because of Mann’s involvement) – he even notes (with excessive modesty) in the booklet that his score stays on the surface because that’s what was required.  It’s a piece of flat-out entertainment and so fascinating to hear North’s version of that, which mirrors in some ways the approach Jerry Fielding took to such films around the same time – close your eyes and forget how dumb the film is, just blow everyone away with the richness of the music.  True, the love theme (introduced in “Loneliness”) is straightforward enough, an attractive, romantic melody with an old-fashioned Hollywood style piano solo; but the suspense and action material around it is very entertaining, North unable to resist the temptation to include his trademark complex harmonies, jazzy hints adding a distinctive flavour.  True, Journey Into Fear is somewhat “ordinary” by the standards of a composer who is renowned for the extraordinary, but considering it’s not even the album’s main course it can hardly be faulted.  That main course, The Dead, is more than worth the price alone and Journey Into Fear is a very entertaining supplement.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 29 July, 2014 at 20:25

    Note: the somewhat cursory review of Journey Into Fear is because I intend to review the expanded release of that score at some point.