Second Glance: Kenneth Branagh’s Twisty, Giddy ‘Dead Again’

Kenneth Branagh's 1991 reincarnation-tinged murder mystery romance is a delightfully self-aware gem.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, just in time for its 25th birthday, we spotlight the wonderfully unsung neo-noir Dead Again.

When Kenneth Branagh made his film directing debut with his acclaimed 1989 adaptation of Henry V, every review in sight compared the young Belfast-born actor/director to Laurence Olivier, who’d brought several of the Bard’s best works (including Henry) to the screen decades earlier. But a lesser-made comparison to one of Olivier’s contemporaries was equally apt: Orson Welles, who made his own filmmaking debut at a dauntingly young age (Branagh was 28 when Henry V was released), and who famously described movie-making as “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.” The sense of wanting to play with that train, to really see what it could do, is all over Branagh’s sophomore picture Dead Again (released a quarter century ago, this week), a film that Welles himself might’ve entertained as one of his own between-Shakespeare pictures.

Dead Again was only the second produced screenplay by Scott Frank, the brilliant screenwriter who went on to pen Malice (with Aaron Sorkin), adapt Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Minority Report, and write and direct the grotesquely underrated The Lookout and A Walk Among the Tombstones. It feels very much like an early screenplay, in the best possible way – you can feel Frank doing his best to dazzle potential buyers on every page with juicy twists, ingenious construction, jazzy dialogue, and colorful characters. And Branagh’s direction gleefully follows suit.

The story they are telling begins as a very standard private eye chestnut – albeit one set in contemporary Los Angeles. Mike Church (Branagh) is a not-quite-hardboiled gumshoe who is called by the higher-ups at his childhood orphanage to figure out the identity of a mysterious woman (Emma Thompson, Branagh’s then-collaborator and wife) who ended up in their care. He doesn’t have much luck, until an antique-dealing hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) turns up, and manages to transport her into a past life, where she discovers she was Margaret, a musician (also played by Thompson), married to brilliant composer Roman (also played by Branagh), who ended up murdering her. And just as her present-day iteration begins to fall for the man who’s saving her, she becomes convinced that, due to their shared past, he’s fated to kill her again.

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If that premise sounds ridiculous, don’t worry – Branagh (and, presumably, Frank) know it is, and don’t seem to mind much. This is a movie that winks at us, to be sure (more on that presently), but only in the writing and directing; Branagh and the rest of the cast play it charmingly straight. He and Thompson get dream assignments – playing two characters in two time periods with two different accents (American in the contemporary strand, German and British in the throwback), and exploring all the connections and fissures in both. To their credit, they create compelling, individual characterizations, and have unsurprisingly potent onscreen chemistry.

Branagh fills out his supporting cast impressively; this feels like one of those situations where actors of note were so impressed by his debut film that they just wanted to work with him, in whatever capacity. Andy Garcia is appropriately dashing as the sophisticated newspaper reporter with a thing for Margaret; he’s one of the few actors to appear as himself in both timelines, sporting 1991’s version of old age make-up in the latter (Roger Ebert memorably dubbed this the “Geriatric Mutant Ninja Turtles” period). But he sells it anyway, rasping his way through a clever bit with a chilling payoff. An unbilled Robin Williams, who was just beginning to explore his dark side around then, sneaks in for a Peter Lorre-ish three scene turn as a disgraced psychiatrist who becomes Church’s unofficial karmic advisor. (And I guess that would make Wayne Knight, cheerfully whistling all of his “S”s, the Sidney Greenstreet.) And Jacobi, another member of the Branagh stock company, is slyly funny; watch how he’s always both a hypnotist and an antiques dealer, casually casing Church’s furniture on the way out of his apartment, pausing a woman’s past-life regression to direct her attention towards a piece of “Uncle Teddy” Roosevelt’s furniture, so she can find out what became of it.

Those little touches are what give the movie its pulse; Matthew Leonetti’s cinematography gives it its sheen. Branagh has since claimed the entire film was originally shot in color, and that the decision was made to shift the past-life scenes into black-and-white in post-production, to clarify the timeframes for confused audiences. That’s possible, but it also seems peculiar, considering how beautifully Leonetti lights those scenes specifically for black-and-white – how his crisp, moody cinematography snaps to those hard shadows, and caresses those curls of cigarette smoke.

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More importantly, the ornate architecture and crackling thunderstorms of those flashbacks simply look right in black-and-white, considering the specific films and filmmakers Branagh is clearly echoing. Dead Again is one of the most Hitchcockian thrillers this side of De Palma, with easily traceable influences of Olivier-fronted Rebecca (in the creepy, needy housekeeper), Psycho (the mysterious old mother in the next room), Dial M for Murder (the scissors as murder weapon), and Spellbound (the therapeutic elements, plus a quickie reference to Salvador Dali, who advised on that film’s dream sequences). The Gothic horror aesthetic owes more than a little to the Welles-starring 1943 Jane Eyre, as well; the photography of the moody opening scene, in which Garcia visits Branagh on death row, recalls scores of similar scenes in various films noir.

All of which is to say, Branagh is having a very good time showing off. So is Frank, whose bonkers narrative takes a giant, surprise turn around the 75-minute mark, and again another 15 minutes later. Branagh follows him unto the breach, and into not one but two deliriously overcooked suspense climaxes – wittily intercutting the two timeframes and finally putting them into sync – indulging in shootings, stabbings, slow-motion, cross-fades, silhouettes, and tension galore, scoring the whole thing with a literal opera. (Here and throughout the picture, Patrick Doyle’s score is both thrilling and hilarious.) There is, it has become clear by this point, no such thing as “too much” in Dead Again.

And that is a compliment. Like the aforementioned De Palma, Branagh is leaning in to his genre, pushing each moment, elongating the beats, taking pleasure in toying with us purely for the pleasure of toying with us. His film is both a good mystery movie and a good movie-movie; its sheer “movieness” is what gives the picture its kick. As his career progressed, Branagh may very well have made better films than Dead Again. But he never made another one this fun.

Dead Again is available for rental or purchase via Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.