There’s a powerful point of resolution that comes late in Dead Again that dropped my jaw and drew from me the heartfelt and totally appropriate exclamation, “Whoa!” You’ll know the climax I’m talking about if and when you see the film. The urge to discuss this film to death, though extremely tempting, would be sinful. It’s sufficient to say that the exclamation I made took my thoughts in a new direction — to a form of theatrical presentation with which I’m utterly unfamiliar; the Noh play.
Wikipedia hasn’t been particularly helpful to me in knitting conjectural threads together, but my sense of wonderful resonanace persists in the performances of a largely classically-trained British cast in interpreting and rendering an obviously-traditional American noir (reboot), set in LA, re-envisioned via the magnifying glass of a deeply alien theatrical culture. The result is downright stunning.
Branagh’s commentary illuminates in-jokes, conceits and allusions to previous noir practitioners; Welles, Hitchcock, Wilder…but failed to mention Preston Sturges, whose Unfaithfully Yours it nearly mirrors in a number of interesting particulars. Neither does he mention the reincarnation of the Strauss mansion in the form of St. Audrey’s, nor the prevalence of music in driving action forward as though Dead Again were a curious kind of musical horror/noir/romance with veins of brutal and subtle humor that curdle the blood while delighting the mind. The anklet in Double Indemnity. Authentic LA geography. Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Campbell Scott stealing scenes in two-bit parts from some of the most-accomplished yespian transplants who ever learned to talk like ‘mericans with the aid of a dialect coach and tapes. Vertical bars on the gate to melody, and the muffled screams of disharmony link Bird to Agincourt and Lush Life to To Be…or not. It’s the moments rather than the moves that matter, and this film brings a ton of fascinating moments, choices and visual mapestry to moments from before it and since, sealed with the curse of a (writer’s block) kiss. Woh!
Charles Laughton’s direction of Night of the Hunter brings Robert Mitchum’s left and right hands together in the rapidly-escalating Dead Again narrative in the form of two gloves that seem to be intent on delivering Emma Thompson from the mystery-resolution revealed through the mesmerizing grip of a kindly benevolence whose BBC remake of The Epic That Never Was echoes in the immensity of Dead Again‘s transAtlantic and transcontinental, interdisciplinary remix of LA noir splendor-bending. It’s a moment in which the viewer comes THIS CLOSE to losing all hope of a satisfying denouement.
This film is a far more remarkably adventurous achievement than The Lady in the Lake, specifically because it successfully integrates (with uncommon clarity) a vastly wider spectrum of human entertainment-experience(s) into a 107minute romp through challenging material that results in a film that’s bent on delighting and astonishing an audience that yawns at special effects, yet cannot anticipate where Dead Again‘s headed. I suspect it will bear up under repeated scrutinies in the same way that Chandler reads and re-reads; fruitfully, every time. Toland collaborated with Welles in making a film that Welles didn’t know was impossible to make without breaking a number of rules (with which Welles was unfamiliar). Toland came for the impossible eggs and stayed on to rewrite the rulebook.
I wish the dolly-camera 360° oner had culminated (in Emma’s hypnotic regression scene) by climbing through her left cornea in the same way that Sturges stepped into Rex Harrison’s retinal reality in Unfaithfully Yours. Dead Again (1991) is a fascinating film that I look eagerly forward to studying a third time while engaging with the second commentary. I suspect this film was profoundly influential in inspiring and greenlighting a wealth of derivative productions (most of which I missed) like The Sixth Sense and Raines, along with the fifth and sixth seasons of Angel. It’s another shining example of the stuff we’re calling New Media; synergizing entertainments founded on gigantic nuggets of cultural wealth that litter the paths-not-traveled-by in literature, theater, cinema and television. If Branagh undertook Chandler, I’d wear bells.
The second commentary intensifies my sense of loss for the many missing elements that would have made the theatrical release of this film a significantly crappier movie. I ran through a number of IMDb reviews, noticing that many people hated or loved the film largely because of Branagh or Tompson, and that apart from that kind of preconception/bias, the remaining pans revolved around the expectation of a noir — which this film absolutely is and yet very often isn’t. The film that was planned, shot and edited mercilessly into the final cut were three very different movies. The commentaries note the sites of beautifully edited stumps where interesting sidebars and backstory limbs formerly hung, which puts Scott Frank high on my list of screenwriters whose work I’m going to explore gleefully.