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Hitchcock Blogathon Runner-Up #1: “Dead Again”

July 12, 2012

Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) and Grace (Emma Thompson)

Roman (Kenneth Branagh) and Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson)

Earlier this week, I wrote a post that was my entry in “The Best Hitchcock Movies Hitchcock Never Made” Blogathon, which my friend Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci and her friend Becky Barnes are running through this Friday, the 13th. I chose The Prestige, but it wasn’t an immediate choice. Some of the films I thought of I eliminated by virtue of the fact other people had chosen them, and I didn’t want to copy anyone. Even without those films, however, there was still a not-small field of movies to choose from, and I re-watched a few before finally making a choice of which movie to cover. There were three other strong contenders, and I will deal with them in my next two posts. The first one will deal with Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 film Dead Again, one of my favorite films.

One of my favorite quotes by Hitchcock was his response to the interviewer who asked why he didn’t make any comedies. Apparently perplexed, he said, “But every film I make *is* a comedy.” Leaving aside the fact Hitchcock actually did make a few out-and-out comedies – the screwball (sort-of) comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), not to be confused with the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie movie, and the black comedies The Trouble with Harry (1955) and Family Plot (1976), the latter being his final film – it is true Hitchcock almost always included humor in his films. Either it was as a comic relief to the suspense (as in, say, The Lady Vanishes), or it was the comic tone of certain movies that suggested, while he may not have had his tongue firmly planted in cheek, he was nevertheless having a bit of fun with the conventions of his story (as in, say, North by Northwest). Obviously, we have no way of knowing what Hitchcock would have made of Dead Again, but I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time, and still do, and I suspect he would have enjoyed not just the mechanics of the film, but the tongue-in-cheek tone as well.

Branagh’s film was the first he made after he became a sensation in 1989 with his version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. He received a lot of credit for not only trying to take on a property that had been filmed so memorably (for most people) before by Laurence Olivier in 1946, but also for taking a more sober and gritty tone than Olivier’s call-to-arms film did. Therefore, while there were critics who enjoyed Branagh’s follow-up – Roger Ebert loved it – others chided Branagh for wasting his talents on something so insubstantial. But far from trivializing his gifts, I think Dead Again shows Branagh’s range, both as a director and as an actor.

Admittedly, part of the cool reception the film received in some quarters has a lot to do with plot tropes involving both the a-word – amnesia – and the r-word – reincarnation (my youngest brother, who isn’t a movie buff but enjoys Hitchcock-type thrillers, refuses to see this movie because of that last part). But even if you don’t believe in reincarnation – I’m not sure I do, though I’m not flatly against the idea – and are tired of amnesia as a plot device (which Hitchcock himself used in Spellbound, which I like more than most), Branagh and writer Scott Frank are having fun with both devices throughout, so I think they go down easier. And the quality of the filmmaking, I think, also makes these devices work.

Intrepid reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia)

The film begins, in black-and-white, with tabloid newspaper headlines screaming about “Murder” – all of the articles written by Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) – talking about the murder of concert pianist Margaret Strauss (Emma Thompson), and through the opening credits, the headlines tell us Roman Strauss (Branagh), a conductor/composer who was her husband, has been arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, which he will be executed for. As the credits end, we hear Roman whistling “Lush Life”, as he’s getting his hair cut, and we realize the headlines are from articles he’s clipped and posted on his cell wall. The writer of those articles, Baker, comes to visit Roman one last time. During this visit, Roman asks Baker to write he has always, and will always, love his now dead wife, and tells him he believes “This is all far from over.” At that, Baker challenges him, “But you still killed her, didn’t you, Mr. Strauss?” Roman responds by leaning over and seemingly whispering in Baker’s left ear, which the guard notices, and then Roman begins his death row march. Baker then notices the barber’s scissors are missing – Roman has them hidden in his left sleeve – and rushes desperately after Roman and the guards, shouting with them to stop. But it’s too late; Roman takes out the scissors, cries out, “These are for you!”, and brings them down on into a woman’s chest.

That preceding sequence was in black-and-white; we then cut to a color sequence where a woman (Thompson again) wakes up screaming (she was also the woman being stabbed previously), and it’s clear that last sequence was a nightmare. Then, as she’s still panicking, the door to her bedroom opens. In one of many reversals Frank pulls in his script, the person behind the door isn’t threatening; she is in fact a nun, telling Thompson to calm down. In yet another reversal, when we see the outside of the building where Thompson is sleeping, it looks like the type of Gothic mansion that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, Rebecca, but in fact, it’s a convent/orphanage; the nun telling Thompson to calm down earlier is now leading a group of young boys in a soccer game. Meanwhile, inside, Sister Madeleine (Jo Anderson) pleads Thompson’s case to Father Timothy (Richard Easton), and it’s here Branagh and Frank drop the next clue; Thompson, during her violent nightmares, cries a word out that turns out to be “Disher” (Sister Madeleine doesn’t quite know what it is, and Father Timothy doesn’t know what the word means at any rate). Father Timothy is unsympathetic, saying Thompson belongs in a hospital, but he does agree to call Mike Church (Branagh), a private detective who specializes in missing persons.

“There’s a lot more people in this world who believe in past lives than don’t.”

In fact, when we first meet Church, he’s on the job, having tracked down Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), an ex-psychiatrist who now works stacking groceries. It’s here Church gets paged by Father Timothy, and when he goes to the orphanage, he parrots the priest’s viewpoint to Sister Madeleine; all he can do is drive Thompson to the hospital. However, after Father Timothy gives him a “you can do better than that” look, Church agrees to take Thompson to Pete Dugan (Wayne Knight), a friend of his who’s a newspaper photographer, so they can run an ad. This, of course, is all before Church meets Thompson, and immediately becomes attracted to her, even thought she’s wearing her Claddagh ring – an Irish wedding band – in a way that indicates she’s taken (this, like many other details, becomes important later). Dugan does take her picture, and tells her a revealing story about when he suffered temporary amnesia; he promises her everything will get better. At first, though, it gets worse; after seeing how insane the county hospital actually is, Church takes her out of there, and tries to take her back to Fr. Timothy, but he remains insistent about Thompson not staying there. Defeated, Church takes Thompson to his apartment, where she suffers nightmares again.

Franklin Madsen (Derek Jacobi) at work.

That’s when Franklin Madson (Derek Jacobi) shows up, drawn by the ad in the paper. At first, Church wants nothing to do with him, especially when he finds out Madson is a hypnotist, but when Madson is able to get her to talk briefly – actually, she yells out, “Somebody help me!” – he agrees to take Thompson to Madsen’s antique furniture shop for a session. At that session, Madson regresses Thompson through hypnosis, but warns her she’s only an observer, and asks her to pick a happy memory, which she says is “the day Roman and Margaret first met”. Church is once again skeptical when he finds out this all happened in 1948, but Thompson presses on, describing how Roman Strauss, a conductor, fell in love with Margaret, a concert pianist who played in his orchestra and wasn’t the least intimidated by him. We see this happening, again in black-and-white, and we see Roman is writing a new opera, that Margaret is clumsy (she knocks down their drinks, and an amused Roman toasts her, “To Margaret, a woman with more beauty than grace”), and that he sees in Margaret’s future not a long life but everlasting love (we also see what is now the orphanage/convent was in fact Roman’s mansion then). Eventually, they get married, and at the reception, we meet Inga (Hanna Schygulla), Roman’s maid, who is loyal to him but not necessarily to Margaret, and her son Frankie (Gregor Hesse), who has a bad stutter. Also showing up is Gray Baker, and it’s here we see him fall in love with Margaret, who’s oblivious to this – at first.

After this session, Thompson can finally speak, but she still doesn’t remember anything, and Madsen reveals the eventual fate of both Roman and Margaret (as well as the meaning of “Disher” – it’s really die shier, the name on the scissors Margaret was stabbed with), and schedules another session. Church still isn’t convinced of the “past life” business, though he admits to Thompson his feelings towards her, and brings her to Carlisle for a second opinion. Carlisle tells them Madsen is not only on to something (“There’s a lot more people in this world who believe in past lives than don’t”), but he himself had a similar case, and that in the grand scheme of things, it all makes sense. After this, we see how Church and Thompson, whom he eventually calls Grace, fall in love, and sleep together (when Grace points out they’re doing the same thing Roman and Margaret did – sleep together on the couch after being in the rain – Church responds, “I’m not Roman”). The next morning, however, a man named Doug (Campbell Scott), shows up, claiming Grace (whom he calls “Catherine”) is her fiancee, and lost her memory because of a bad reaction to medicine. It seems like this is the end of everything – Church even refuses any offer of pay – until it turns out the glove Doug brought as proof (she came to the orphanage/convent with one glove) was for the wrong hand, at which point Doug flees, and beats back Church’s attempts to stop him. Not surprisingly, at the next session, Madsen tells Grace not to be an observer anymore, and we see Roman and Margaret’s happy marriage on thin ice, as he’s poor and can’t get his opera finished, plus he’s jealous of Gray Baker’s attentions towards Margaret. They also have a huge fight when she accuses Frankie of stealing from her (Roman won’t ask Inga to leave because she saved his life when he had to flee Europe), and she inadvertently lets slip Baker has been feeding her information. That night, she stirs, and sees Church, in a mask, with a pair of scissors, saying, “These are for you!” With that, Grace snaps out of her trance, and tells both Madsen and Church about seeing Church at the end. Church, again, says he’s not Roman and isn’t convinced of the validity of her story. But will events prove him wrong?

As I mentioned before, Branagh and Frank seem to know how this could all seem silly if taken too seriously, so they don’t. There are a number of scenes where the tone is slightly tongue-in-cheek without every slipping into self-parody (a balance Branagh unfortunately wasn’t able to maintain in his version of Frankenstein, unfortunately), such as Madsen asking a patient (Miriam Margoyles) he has under hypnosis about antique furniture, or having two other minor actors play double roles (in addition to playing Sister Madeleine, Anderson plays a bored starlet in the past sequences, while composer Patrick Doyle plays a cop in the present day and a party-goer in the past), or the playful banter between Roman and Margaret, as well as between Church and Dugan, and especially the scenes with Cozy Carlisle, even though Williams for the most part doesn’t play for comedy (Carlisle picking up on Church’s wanting to quit smoking, which also becomes important later). There are a few more touches like that which I don’t want to reveal because they’re spoilers, but you get the idea. Again, this is very much like Hitchcock; even in Spellbound, his most obviously Freudian movie, he has some humorous scenes to lighten the load. And as Hitchcock did with Rebecca, Branagh also combines the humor with Gothic touches, like the shots of Roman’s mansion at night.

On the DVD commentaries, Branagh, Frank and producer Lindsay Doran mention the past sequences were originally shot in color, even though Frank had originally written them to be in black and white, but when they were screening the movie, the decision was made to transfer them to black and white. This upset the costume and set designers at first, as they would have done things differently had they known it would be black and white, but it ends up working. Plus, Branagh, cinematographer Matthew Leonetti (Strange Days), editor Peter Berger (Fatal Atttraction) and Doyle do make the look and sound distinct in the past and present sequences (aside from the difference between black and white and color, of course), until they start to converge on each other. Doyle, who wrote a score Bernard Herrmann, I think, would be proud of, is especially good in that regard; the past scenes have a more operatic score, while the present day, until Grace reveals she saw Church in her flashback, is more varied. And also, the variance between black and white and color helps balance the varied moods Branagh and Frank have in the movie, from tongue-in-cheek humor to suspense. Just like Hitchcock, Branagh also uses the locations well – not just Roman’s mansion, but Church’s apartment (and, as we find out later, Grace’s apartment) feels appropriate to the movie – as well as the objects like the scissors and the anklet Roman gives Margaret as a wedding present.

Originally, Frank had written the roles of Church, Grace, Roman and Margaret to be played by four different actors, but when Branagh and Thompson (who were married at the time) read the script, they wanted to each play dual roles, and in addition to making better sense for the plot, it makes the parallels play even better (the fact, for example, both Roman and Margaret, and Church and Grace, go on moonlit strolls by the water). It’s also a terrific juggling act both actors have to do – Branagh is playing an imperious and volatile European composer as well as a self-styled tough guy detective, while Thompson has to be a snarky yet romantic and tough-minded pianist and a scared woman – yet they both pull it off. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but Branagh and Thompson were once a sort of royal couple – this was one of four movies they made together, and one of three where their characters were involved romantically – and while on the DVD commentary, Doran and Frank admitted the modern-day love story wasn’t as present in original drafts of the script, the chemistry between the two in both past and present is palpable. Admittedly, they both have slight slip-ups with their American accents, but in general, they both do a good job. Speaking of accents, Garcia does a weird one as Baker, but is otherwise very good as a cynical, hard-drinking (and smoking) reporter who nevertheless has his own romantic side (as well as being involved in one of the most darkly hilarious moments of the film). Jacobi, a last-minute replacement (Donald Sutherland was originally wanted for the part), is both eccentric and commanding. Dugan is arguably the one innocent in the entire story, and Knight plays him with the right regular-guy yet humorous touch. And while Schygulla doesn’t have much to do, she’s convincing as Inga. The real surprise here is Williams. He had played dramatic before, of course (in The World According to Garp and Dead Poets Society), and he does have his comic side here, but this was the first time he’d shown a real darkness to him, as when he gives Church a piece of advice in their final scene together.

One final note about Hitchcock; he reportedly coined the term now known as “refrigerator logic”, which is a plot hole that doesn’t occur to you until well after you see the movie (his example was from Vertigo, with Madeleine mysteriously disappearing from the hotel Scottie saw her in, while my favorite example from his films would be his remake of The Man who Knew Too Much; if the bus doesn’t swerve at the beginning, and Hank doesn’t pull off the woman’s veil by accident, the entire plot goes out the window). Frank admits in the DVD commentary the introduction of a character in the movie is a refrigerator logic moment, and I would argue a one-scene character functions the same way. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter because, as I said, Branagh and Frank do such a good job of making this Hitchcock-type thriller both tongue-in-cheek and suspenseful at the same time, and indeed, one of the best Hitchcock films Hitchcock never made.

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One Comment
  1. Been a while since I watched this one, liked it though, and look forward to seeing it again now after reading your thoughts. Interesting critics saying Branagh was wasting his time doing something so “pedestrian” as a mere thriller, seems (still) kind of a misunderstood or unappreciated genre, probably since it seems formulaic and deceptively easy to do, but quite difficult to do well, stay within the strict “rules” of the genre and still be creative with it. Branagh and Thompson of course had great chemistry they really were as you write, a “royal couple” for a time, lucky actors got play more than one role in this movie (actors must relish twins and reincarnation roles!) and re: Williams, comedians tend to be amazing dramatic actors, so true. well done,thanks! glad I found your blog, will certainly be following & reading

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