With Dead Again, Kenneth Branagh takes a shot at unseating Brian De Palma as the master of the Hitchockian homage, and one can’t help but appreciate the attempt. Especially when the result is as gleefully fetishistic as this 1991 film, which has the hots for numerous classics by the Master of Suspense, and fashioned in ways that allow cinephiles to visually pick out these drool-worthy influences. The ridiculous story, however, takes its cue from North by Northwest, whose equally incredulous plot served as the hook upon which its director hung his effective bag of tricks. Hitch once said, “Logic is dull,” and it’s a quote that writer Scott Frank takes to heart: Dead Again’s director-inspiring hook is a mystery about reincarnated lovers who may or may not be heading down the same murderous path as their predecessors.
The original couple—a composer, Roman Strauss (Branagh), and his wife, Margaret (Emma Thompson)—have their story chronicled in the film’s opening credits via a series of 1949 tabloid headlines by Gray Baker (Andy Garcia). We learn that the Strausses’ once-happy marriage ended when, in a fit of rage, Roman murdered Margaret with a very large pair of scissors—the same item Grace Kelly reached for, and in 3D, in Dial M for Murder. Sharp instruments used in violent ways have often been used in movies as stand-ins for sexual penetration, and it’s no different in this rather chaste love story. But Dead Again is obsessed with scissors to the point of madness; they pop up everywhere, and Branagh’s camera caresses them with the same longing Hitchcock reserved for his icy blondes. In fact, the film’s climactic scene, a nasty bit of Grand Guignol, takes place in a room full of enormous scissors.
The present-day couple—private eye Mike Church and an amnesiac he christens Grace (also played by Branagh and Thompson)—have ties to Roman and Margaret that go much deeper than physical appearance. Grace is prone to nightmares from which she awakens, screaming the German word for scissors. Her dreams, rendered in stunning black and white by D.P. Matthew F. Leonetti, hint that she may be the reincarnation of Margaret, a notion given credence by her sessions with a hypnotist, Frankie (Derek Jacobi). He’s been hired to help Grace find her current identity, and each session provides more clues via a retelling of the Strausses’ story. When visions of a murderous Mike invade Grace’s subconscious, she thinks he’s the second coming of Roman, the man who killed Margaret. This throws a huge monkey wrench, or rather, a huge pair of scissors into Mike and Grace’s budding romantic plans.
Logic is dull and all that jazz. What isn’t dull, though, is the way Branagh as a director attacks this material. It’s fitting that Roman wrote operas, as Branagh goes for the oversized, outlandish, and dramatic flourishes of that medium. He gives his Roman character one hell of an entrance, shooting him in a sinister shadow that obscures most of his face, and he relishes jumping back and forth in time, creating parallels and visual cues that complement each other. He also milks the hell out of Patrick Doyle’s wondrously bombastic score, which sounds as if Franz Waxman were scoring a slasher movie.
In the black-and-white sequences, which make up a large part of the film, Branagh alternates between an homage to German expressionism and the gothic, silvery chill of a 1940s film like Rebecca. There’s even a housekeeper (Hanna Schygulla) who’s mildly reminiscent of that film’s Mrs. Danvers. In the present-day color sequences, Branagh takes a more leisurely, though no less dramatic, stroll through the mysterious proceedings, surrounding his hapless, rugged private dick with comic characters played by Wayne Knight and Robin Williams. And Williams steals the film as a shrink who’s more Hannibal Lecter than Good Will Hunting’s Sean Maguire; his batshit performance gives the film’s wacko explanations a strange sense of legitimacy.
I suppose that Paramount green-lit Dead Again because, after the massive success of Ghost, the studio thought audiences would tolerate another romance with supernatural overtones. Dead Again adds a gender-related twist to this formula that opens up a whole slew of queer possibilities that the film slyly hints at, but doesn’t exactly pursue: We discover that Mike, not Grace, is the reincarnation of Margaret, and that her actual killer was her housekeeper’s son, Frankie the hypnotist, whose confused romantic longings may have fueled his murderous rage. When Frankie comes to “kill Margaret again” by murdering Grace, he’s got the wrong party. If Dead Again really wanted an out-of-leftfield twist, Frankie would have realized that the object of his affection was, like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, inhabiting the body of someone of the same sex, and at least have asked Mike out before trying to kill him. Alas, that might have been too unbelievable even for this film.