The Persistence of Allusion

29 Oct

What’s your favorite Halloween spooky movie? Halloween? Carrie? Psycho? The Exorcist? Maybe you were watching Night of the Living Dead before zombies were cool. Perhaps you prefer vintage Universal: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.  Almost everyone knows I get a kick out of Universal’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. I like a few yuks with my chills though I’m almost always up for Carrie and some of the other classics. I now know that some people adore Bette Midler’s cheeky Hocus Pocus and watch it every year. Well, certainly witches are making a comeback.  I recently had a chance (two chances, actually)  to catch up with another flick that mixes  laughs with thrills and chills, and that’s 1991’s Dead Again, actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s kooky, campy, tense, and twisty ode to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The plot unfolds as follows: In late 1940s Los Angeles, a beautiful, accomplished concert pianist falls in love with a brilliant if volatile composer-conductor. The two wed and move into the conductor’s Neo-Gothic manse with his clingy live-in housekeeper; however, the newlyweds’ happiness does not last long, and the bride is brutally murdered. In short order, the husband is arrested, tried, and put to death. More than forty years pass, and one night a confused woman shows up at the orphanage that was once the home of the pianist and the conductor.  Not only does the woman not even know her own name nor where she calls home, she can’t even speak. Still, she’s tormented by violent dreams.  Eventually, she comes to believe that she’s the pianist reincarnated; moreover, she believes that someone wants to kill her…again.

Branagh looks like Olivier

^ Kenneth Branagh as Roman Strauss in Dead Again,

When Branagh set out to direct and star in Dead Again with his then wife Emma Thompson, he was hot-hot-hot, having just earned a pair of Oscar nods (Best Actor and Best Director) for his stunning take on Shakespeare’s Henry V, for all practical purposes his entry into feature films.  At the time, critics hailed Branagh as the heir apparent to the  late great Sir Laurence Olivier, who passed away in June of 1989–only months before Henry‘s year-end release. By all accounts, Branagh basked in all that Olivier hype, even encouraging it.

laurence as maxim

^ Young Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter in Rebecca.

It’s hard not to think of Olivier when watching Branagh in Dead Again–or at least parts of it, as he and Thompson play two roles each. In black and white flashbacks, they’re Roman and Margaret Strauss, and even though Branagh’s hair and makeup do not make him look exactly like Olivier in Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar winning Rebecca, a strong resemblance clearly exists–and likely not a coincidence.  Keep in mind, as well, that Rebecca was also filmed in black and white; moreover, Dead Again and Rebecca share a number of plot elements, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

To clarify, Branagh did not write Dead Again. No, that distinction belongs to Scott Frank, whose other credits include the diabolically clever Malice (1993), along with adaptations of Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report, The Interpreter (a movie worth its own blog article), and Marley and Me of all things. At any rate, Frank contributes commentary on the DVD release, and even though Hitchcock is mentioned in passing, there’s not much in way of pointing out specific allusions, but the master’s fingerprints, so to speak, are all over the piece, quite deliberately I’m sure.

Whatever else it has going for it, Dead Again is very much a movie about movies, and picking out all of the Hitchcock references is great fun.  Shall we?


Hollywood magic strikes again as screenwriter Scott Frank reveals the cupolas on the Strauss estate were especially created for the film

^ In Rebecca, Maxim de Winter brings his new bride to Manderly, the lavish estate he shared with his deceased first wife.  In Dead Again, Margaret Strauss moves into Roman Strauss’s Goth mansion (above) after a whirlwind courtship.  To clarify: the Strauss exterior is NOT Rebecca‘s Manderly exterior. The point is the similarity in plots though this  move is typical of a Gothic romance.  That noted, if the Dead Again manse looks familiar, it’s likely because it was once featured as “stately Wayne Manor” in the old Batman TV series.  I recognized it the first time I saw Dead Again, and while neither writer Frank nor producer Lindsay Duncan actually confirms it, they do strongly suggest that this Pasadena mansion is indeed the Batman house. In Dead Again, as previously noted, it’s also seen as the orphanage that the Strauss mansion becomes over time.

rebecca danvers

Dame Judith Anderson in her Oscar nominated performance as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca.

^ Per last week’s entry about Joan Fontaine, the second Mrs. de Winter does not curry much favor with her husband’s spooky housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played by Oscar nominee Judith Anderson (above). Similarly, in  Dead Again‘s flashbacks, tension builds between newlywed Margaret Strauss and her husband’s longtime housekeeper Inga; the latter barely hides her contempt for the new lady-of-the-house and thinks nothing of overstepping her bounds even if that means sabotaging the Strausses’ wedding night.


British acting royalty, and frequent Branagh collaborator, Derek Jacobi garnered a BAFTA nomination for his role in Dead Again

^ In Psycho, boyish, lanky motel manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) appears extremely preoccupied with his dear old mom while in Dead Again, a dapper antiques dealer, and part-time hypnotist, played by Derek Jacobi (above) has some weird creepy bond with his own mum. In both movies, the sons exchange unpleasantries with their mothers, both of whom remain mysteriously offscreen during such bouts.

A key scene in Rebecca takes place during a costume party while Dead Again features a masked ball which also proves crucial. That noted, nothing about the latter suggests anything specific about the former. Yes, there is a similarity though it’s not compelling.  After all, it’s not unusual to see a big party scene in a movie. On the other hand, Dead Again shares something more specific with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the latter,  Jimmy Stewart’s character embarks on a search to find his son’s kidnappers, but his hunt goes nowhere until he realizes that he has completely misinterpreted an important clue. In Dead Again‘s modern scenes, a detective (also played by Branagh) suffers a similar distraction.

scissors M

Hitchcock goes “3-D” in 1954’s Dial M for Murder

In Dial M for Murder, Grace Kelly (above) reaches for a pair of scissors as she fights to protect herself against an attacker, and wouldn’t you know it:  scissors are the weapon of choice for Margaret Strauss’s killer.  Indeed, they’re all over the place, beginning with the first scene. At the same time, the murder in Dead Again is staged behind sheer drapery with lots of shadows, so while the crime is not shown graphically, it also recalls the brutal stabbing in Psycho which takes place in a shower stall with the killer’s shadow first seen emerging through a shower curtain.


The Persistence of Memory (1931) by Salvador Dali

^ In what I believe is the wittiest gag in all of Dead Again, Salvador Dali’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory (above) is parodied–with melting scissors replacing the time pieces in Dali’s iconic original. What makes the gag so brilliant is the way it works on multiple levels. At first, it just seems funny to see scissors in the painting, but then the beauty of it becomes more apparent. For example, didn’t Dali design the dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (below) with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck? Yes, it’s true, and scissors make an appearance in the Spellbound sequence,  so the Dead Again version is no mere allusion to Dali because it still functions as a nod to Hitchcock. Plus, it echos Spellbound in another way as characters in both movies undergo hypnosis  in order to unlock the secrets of their pasts.


An image from the Salvador Dali designed dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound

Also, the very title of Dali’s painting, the whole idea of it, is particularly resonant in Branagh’s film for two reasons. First, it is indeed the persistent memories of past lives intruding on the present that will not let the characters rest.  Furthermore, Dead Again relies on the collective memory of film enthusiasts in order to work on as many levels as it does because, again, it is as much about other movies as it is about a murdered woman and reincarnation.  Because the love and lore of movies has so pervaded the public consciousness, I wonder how Dali might tackle his singularly famous painting if he were alive today. Film strips or DVDs instead of clocks maybe? Maybe representations of famous movie posters?

A movie with a script as far flung as this one, with as many characters as this one, absolutely requires strong performances to help keep it moving. Besides Branagh, Thompson, and Jacobi, Dead Again also features Andy Garcia as a  determined, if not entirely honorable, reporter (and, oh, is he gorgeous!) and Robin Williams–uncredited–as a psychiatrist who has, well, definitely seen better days.  You might also recognize a few more faces among the cast even if the names are not quite as familiar.  As noted,  Jacobi actually earned a Best Supporting Actor nod from the British Academy. Not bad, especially since, per the DVD commentary, he had almost no prep time between the time he arrived in LA from England (after completing one project)  and the time he actually began shooting. Maybe a two day turnaround. I don’t think Branagh and Thompson were necessarily Oscar worthy, but I could have easily imagined that one or the other would be in line for a Golden Globe because these are performances, two each mind you, that work on multiple levels, meaning the actors know when to play it straight and when to incorporate some sly, sly humor. Thompson is also especially good at evincing panic, and Branagh knows how to seize command of the screen when he’s in full-throttle Olivier, I mean Strauss, mode.

On the other hand, skillful performances aside, Dead Again is not without a few shortcomings. Mainly, the cinematography.  The black and white stuff was one of the things that first attracted my interest some twenty years ago when I decided to make Dead Again one of my quarterly project pictures.  The campaign was great, btw, but I was a bit letdown by when I first viewed the movie, yet I couldn’t articulate why except that I thought something was somehow “off” in the flashbacks.  The easiest way would be to say that some of the B&W scenes look washed-out or muddied somehow. Maybe “low contrast” is the best way to describe the effect. Oh, the flashbacks are not terrible. At times, they are quite striking, but they don’t necessarily look glamorous or exciting in that classic Hollywood way, you know, per RebeccaNotorious, Psycho, etc. Well, what did I learn from the DVD? As conceived, the movie was set to switch from B&W to color to B&W again, and, true enough, that’s the end result; however, despite writer Frank’s intentions, Branagh had it in mind to film the whole thing in color, probably to save both time and money. Later, audiences in early screenings (or something akln to…)  struggled to figure out what was “real” and what was a flashback, so the decision was made to convert the 1940s scenes  to B&W during post-production.  This soon became an issue for the costume designer (Phyllis Dalton [1]), production designer (Tim Harvey), etc. who made it clear that if they had known their work was going to be seen in black and white rather than in color, they would have made other choices in their work.

This goes back to last week’s article about the use of black and white imagery of Letter from an Unknown Woman.  In order for black and white to achieve maximum value, great care must be paid to the palette BEFORE the camera rolls. It’s not as simple as making sure something looks good to the human eye and then shooting it with black and white film.  Like Frank’s script, the design elements must be conceived in black and white; otherwise, the tones are not as distinct as they need to be. The dark colors just look dark, the medium tones are a blur, and the shades of white just don’t pop.  Oh, and even Frank and Duncan lament that two of the converted scenes were actually incredibly beautiful in their original color incarnations. Alas, this was a case in which Branagh’s inexperience as a feature film director worked against him. (Note: Besides the audio commentary provided by Frank and Duncan, Branagh offers his perspective on a separate track.)

On the other hand, despite the snafu over the whole color/black and white thing, Dead Again has plenty to recommend besides some clever performances–chief among these is Patrick Doyle’s score, which demands the audience’s attention from the first note of the first frame. Well, it stands to reason that a movie about a composer would boast impeccable music, but Doyle combines a certain amount of grandiosity–after all, Roman Strauss is in the business of opera–while at the same time paying tribute to the familiar yet ominous strains of composer Bernard Herrmann, who scored many of Hitchcock’s most famous films, including Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho. Doyle also throws in a reference or two to Miklos Rozsa’s creepy, Oscar winning score to Spellbound. The movie is also heavy with piano in some scenes, which also makes sense in keeping with Margaret’s livelihood.  Dead Again also features a nifty little tour of 1940s era Los Angeles as many of the actual locations are authentic to the era; some of those locations include the Hightower House and the Shakespeare Bridge.

Plus, Scott Frank’s script is quite a nifty contraption working in as many Hitchcock references as it does along with juggling stories set more than 40 years apart and all kinds of interesting details related to character development. To his credit, Frank was actually nominated for an Edgar award (as in Edgar Allen Poe). Also, I think the ending is incredibly sexy though the full implications of it might not be apparent upon first viewing.

Well, we all know how this story ends. No, not the story of Margaret and Roman. The story of Emma and Kenneth. They divorced a few years after working on Dead Again though not before pairing up for Branagh’s super sexy sun-soaked 1993 treatment of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (also with music by Patrick Doyle and costumes by Phyllis Dalton). Thompson snagged a Best Actress Oscar for 1992’s Howards End and was back in the race the following year for both The Remains of the Day (Best Actress) and In the Name of the Father (Best Supporting Actress). She later scored another Oscar for adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for director Ang Lee in 1995, earning yet another Best Actress nod in the process. Branagh hasn’t fared too poorly either.  He directed  1992’s Oscar nominated short film, Swan Song (adapted from Chekhov’s play), and then in 1996, he adapted, directed, and starred in the first full-length feature film version of Hamlet (with Derek Jacobi as Claudius).  When the Academy rewarded him with a nod for his screenplay, skeptics scoffed. Their reasoning was that since Branagh had made such a big deal about presenting Shakespeare’s text in its full four-hour glory, he had not actually “adapted” anything. Those naysayers completely missed the point: Branagh didn’t just point a camera and let it record actors reciting Shakepeare’s dialogue verbatim. Even with his apparent fidelity to the Bard, Branagh still had to visualize how he wanted to present the material, and then he had to break down that vision accordingly into a suitable shooting script. Of course, where does any actor go after s/he plays Hamlet? For Branagh, the logical step, though it took awhile [2], was to actually play his hero, Lord Olivier. Yep, Branagh portrayed the legendary actor-director in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, the allegedly true story of what happened when 1950’s American sex goddess Marilyn Monroe went to England to shoot The Prince and the Showgirl with the one and only Olivier. Not only was Branagh a perfect fit for the role, he picked up an Oscar nod for it as well. A triumph; however,  I can’t ever imagine watching My Week with Marilyn again.  Talk about scary. Michelle Williams’s performance as Monroe, Oscar nomination or no, is too blood curdling even for Halloween viewing. Stick to Branagh unofficially impersonating Olivier in Dead Again.

Thanks for your consideration….

[1] Dalton had just won an Oscar for Branagh’s Henry V when she began work on Dead Again.

[2] One of my favorite Branagh films, though quite intense and not always pretty, is Australia’s award winning, and fact-based, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002); he also had a supporting role in the surprisingly taut Valkyrie (2008). Plus, he and Thompson both appeared in the Harry Potter movies.

More on the Shakespeare Bridge and the Hightower House:

The Hightower House:


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