Dead Again (1991)
September 10, 2022 6:57 AM - Subscribe

In 1949 composer Roman Strauss is executed for viciously murdering his wife Margaret with a pair of scissors. In 1990s Los Angeles a mute and traumatized amnesiac woman shows up at an orphanage, and when private investigator Mike Church, who grew up at the orphanage, is called in help, both he and the woman discover that they have a strange connection to the Strausses.

Background Info, Box Office & Critical Reception

Dead Again is a 1991 neo-noir romantic thriller film directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Scott Frank. It stars Branagh and Emma Thompson, with Andy García, Derek Jacobi, Hanna Schygulla, Wayne Knight, and Robin Williams appearing in supporting roles.

Dead Again was a moderate box office success and received positive reviews from the majority of critics. Jacobi was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Patrick Doyle, who composed the film's music, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

On Rotten Tomatoes, Dead Again has an approval rating of 81% based on reviews from 48 critics. On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 66 out of 100, based on reviews from 19 critics. Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade "A−" on scale of A to F.

Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing four star review, drawing comparisons to the works of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, stating, "Dead Again is Kenneth Branagh once again demonstrating that he has a natural flair for bold theatrical gesture. If Henry V, the first film he directed and starred in, caused people to compare him to Olivier, Dead Again will inspire comparisons to Welles and Hitchcock -- and the Olivier of Hitchcock's Rebecca. I do not suggest Branagh is already as great a director as Welles and Hitchcock, although he has a good start in that direction. What I mean is that his spirit, his daring, is in the same league. He is not interested in making timid movies." James Berardinelli also gave the film a four star review, praising Branagh's direction and all levels of the production, from the screenplay by Scott Frank to Patrick Doyle's score, stating, "...Branagh has combined all of these cinematic elements into an achievement that rivals Hitchcock's best work and stands out as one of the most intriguing and memorable thrillers of the 1990s."

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone viewed the film negatively, praising some elements of Branagh's direction while criticizing the romance, saying, "In his efforts to crowd the screen with character and incident, Branagh cheats on the one element that might have given resonance to the mystery: the love story. Branagh and Thompson (married in real life) are sublime actors, but they never develop a convincing ardor as either couple. How could they when the director is so busy playing tricks? Dead Again isn't a disaster, merely a miscalculation from a prodigious talent who has forgotten that you squeeze the life out of romance when you don't give it space to breathe."

Vincent Canby of The New York Times gave the film a lukewarm review, calling it "a big, convoluted, entertainingly dizzy romantic mystery melodrama" and concluding, "Dead Again is eventually a lot simpler than it pretends to be. The explanation of the mystery is a rather commonplace letdown, but probably nothing short of mass murder could successfully top the baroque buildup. In this way, too, the film is faithful to its antecedents, while still being a lot of fun."

In 2016, Jason Bailey at Flavorwire repeated Roger Ebert's initial directorial comparisons, writing that, "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 Dalí, who advised on that film’s dream sequences)".


According to Kenneth Branagh, "We wanted to set up the atmosphere of this film immediately." This is why it opens with a "low grind" of a score during the opening credits before ramping up with those murder headlines. The goal was to set expectations early for an entertaining gothic mystery.

Grace awakening from her dream to a stormy night features gothic touches in its visuals and score, and it's all part of Scott Frank's enjoyment of "the vocabulary of this kind of film."

This movie was shot entirely in colour. It was decided during editing, however, that the movement between past and present could be made clearer by printing the Roman and Margaret scenes in black and white. Director Sir Kenneth Branagh comments on the DVD that the costume and set designers were disappointed by this late stage decision, because they would have used different colours for those scenes, which would photograph better in black and white, had they known in advance.

Mike Church drives a 1962 Chevrolet Corvette. When we first see Mike Church, he's parked on the wrong side of the street. Most people thought this was a nod to director Sir Kenneth Branagh's British heritage. The real reason is because Branagh wanted some Los Angeles skyscrapers visible in the background.

The home used as the composer's mansion-turned-Catholic orphanage is located in Pasadena, CA. They added the front gate and extra towers to maximize the gothic nature. The same building was used for exteriors of Bruce Wayne's house in Batman (1966).

Mike Church's building is the same house as in Double Indemnity (1944), another movie in which an anklet plays a major role.

Grace's apartment was located at High Tower in the Hollywood Hills, but while they filmed the exteriors there the apartment's interior is a set. They took photos from within the real location and blew them up as translucent backdrops visible outside the set's windows.

Producer Lindsay Doran suggested that the introduction of Grace's apartment/studio should feature insert shots of the scissor sculptures and artwork, but Branagh said no. He eventually realized his mistake and blames his own stubbornness adding "quite frankly the director was stupid not to have listened."

A lacquer box containing an antique pair of scissors, seen late in the movie, has Japanese characters on it that translate into "These are for you," a recurring line of dialogue in the movie.

Kenneth Branagh received an influx of scripts after the success of Henry V (1989), most of them historical epics, but when he read Scott Frank's screenplay aloud with his then-wife Emma Thompson (Branagh and Thompson were divorced in 1995), they were both gripped from the opening onward.

Kenneth Branagh credits producers Lindsay Doran and Sydney Pollack with using their weight to support the casting of both himself and Thompson, two Brits who were yet to become big stars, in a Hollywood thriller.

This movie role was Kenneth Branagh's first real go at a sustained American accent, and he would go out in Los Angeles to practice it with strangers. No one seemed to notice or care.

Donald Sutherland was the first choice for Franklyn Madson. Christopher Lloyd, John Lithgow, Alec Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Maximilian Schell, and Alan Rickman were also considered to play Franklyn Madson.

Casting Sir Derek Jacobi as the stutterer Franklyn Madson coincided with the fact that Jacobi had gained fame as the Roman emperor Claudius in I, Claudius (1976). Contemporaries of the emperor made fun of his speech impediment by referring to him as "Claudius the Stammerer" and "Clau-clau-clau-claudius.

Emma Thompson had worked with Wayne Knight previously, and insisted that he be cast here.

As Dead Again was one of his few horror/thriller movie roles, Robin Williams didn't want his name to appear in the opening credits, as it might have misled audiences into thinking that this movie was a comedy. He only has three scenes with director Sir Kenneth Branagh, and one with Dame Emma Thompson. This was due to Robin doing two other movies the same year, not from Paramount Pictures, but from TriStar Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony Pictures), which include Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King and Steven Spielberg's Hook.

It was Kenneth Branagh's idea that Roman and Margaret would be played by him and Emma Thompson in addition to Mike and Grace. The original script stipulated that the 4 characters would be played by 4 different actors, but Branagh wanted to make the past-life and reincarnation angle more apparent by having him and Thompson playing both their past and present selves. Cast and crew members on told Kenneth Branagh that he was far more cheerful and fun to be around when he was playing Mike, as opposed to when he was playing the brooding Roman.

Two additional double roles (besides Mike/Roman and Grace/Margaret) are in this movie: the nun at the orphanage turns up as a snooty starlet at a party in the 1940s, and the movie's composer, Patrick Doyle, plays both a cop at the mental hospital and an obnoxious party guest. Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplay, has a cameo as one of the cops in the elevator at the mental hospital.

A pair of talented stunt performers doubled for Kenneth Branagh and Campbell Scott during part of their bridge fight, but it was Branagh who "received the blow in the testicular area which was given to him by Campbell Scott who was zealous to the point of inflicting actual bodily harm."

Mike is struggling to quit smoking, but Kenneth Branagh was a non-smoker and was unable to convincingly portray the smoking scenes -- he was so bad at them they ultimately had to be cut. "The sad, horrible truth is that sometime later I now do smoke." In the director's commentary, he says he hopes that this rewatch, once it reaches the gross scene with Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) smoking through his neck, will convince him to quit.

Scott Frank added the scene with older Gray smoking through his neck hole after seeing someone do it in a restaurant.

The shot of Cozy Carlisle looking at the couple after their grocery store chat (at 46 mins.) was a quick insert Kenneth Branagh grabbed, unsure if he'd use it. He told Williams "let's just get a closeup of you looking a little bit odd so that we can continue to have your character as a possible candidate for the one who did it."

The scene with Grace and Mike walking along the lake at night was shot at Echo Park in Los Angeles three months after the rest of the movie. It was felt that the scene was needed to show the characters growing closer together. "You can see that in my face there's a little more weight, perhaps something the makeup people weren't too pleased about." Kenneth Branagh was also out on his first ski trip in the days before the reshoots, and he caught hell from the producer and insurance people.

The flashback sequence with Roman and Margaret walking on the beach was filmed on a stretch of CA coast where Baywatch would be filmed years later. "Who knows, it may have been the very bodies that they saw here that gave them the idea for that show. I may be wrong, I'm not sure," Kenneth Branagh said.

The Roman/Margaret and Mike/Grace double identities are foreshadowed by subtle similarities. Mike first shows up at the orphanage (former Strauss mansion) where Margaret died. Roman dies elsewhere and has to "find" his way there, as Grace eventually does. Mike spills the cup of tea during his date with Grace, and during a flashback, Margaret spills a drink while dining with Roman. Afterwards Roman remarks that she has more "beauty than grace." These two hints foreshadow each character's past identity. Mike's apartment also contains several pictures of pianists and piano keyboards, hinting at his true identity to the careful viewer. When Mike lays Grace down on the couch and she says this is just like Margaret and Roman, Mike says "I'm not Roman." During "Grace's" first hypnosis session, she throws back her head and screams, "Somebody help me!" Roman yells the same words as he holds his wife's dead body. Grace is frequently associated with scissors. When "Doug" tries to steal her away, the prescription bottle he offers as evidence is made out to Katherine Pierce. Grace's real name is later shown to be Amanda Sharp. Margaret was very daring and fearless, like Mike, while Roman was more fearful and neurotic, like Grace.

Mike's continued insistence to Grace that he isn't Roman is subtle foreshadowing. In his past life, he was actually Margaret and Grace was Roman.

Both of Grace's other names, Kathryn Pierce and Amanda Sharp, evoke images of stabbing.

The hypnotist's name Madson sounds like "mad son," which gives away his true nature. Another early hint to the true identity of Franklyn Madson is when, after his first session with Grace, he consults his appointment book and stutters slightly at the word "twelve."

During the shooting of the final brawl, in which Mike Church and Franklyn Madson are fighting, Sir Kenneth Branagh had attempted to insure that Sir Derek Jacobi would protect himself when Madson's head is slammed into a shelf. Jacobi was supposed to put his hands under his head. Unfortunately, when it came to shoot the scene, Jacobi didn't manage to do so, and hit his head on the shelf, causing a concussion.

It's a very grim scene, but on the day of filming the end fight the three actors -- Branagh, Thompson, and Jacobi -- found it endlessly amusing to be standing there, staring intently at each other, while one of them held a pair of bloody scissors.

The end beat with Franklyn leaping and landing on the large scissor sculpture -- a jump that Jacobi had to be convinced was absolutely necessary -- was to some "massively and campily over the top," but Branagh and friends found it entirely appropriate.

The final shot is a fade from Roman and Margaret kissing to Mike and Grace kissing, and for the longest time, they had them lined up by actor -- Emma Thompson on the left and Kenneth Branagh on the right. They ultimately flipped the negative on the second pair as it actually makes the most sense keeping in line with the film's past lives narrative.

One of Sir Kenneth Branagh's trademarks as a director are uninterrupted takes. Several such scenes can be seen throughout the movie. Also, the first hypnosis scene set at the Laughing Duke features an extremely complicated camera shot in three hundred sixty degrees. It involved a great deal of precise timing and technical know-how. Although a relatively short scene, it took fifteen takes and a whole day to get right.

Not every filmmaker enjoys the preview process, but Kenneth Branagh is a fan. Early previews "were disastrous" and led to some fiddling with additional scenes and third-act edits that helped keep the audience entranced and in sync. Kenneth Branagh attended some screenings of the film and recalls a deathly silence in theaters during the reveal that Mike was Margaret in his past life.

The scene in which Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh) visits the elderly Gray Baker (Andy Garcia) in his nursing home strongly refers to the scene in Citizen Kane (1941) in which the reporter interviews the elderly Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton) in his nursing home. Both old men ask their visitors repeatedly for forbidden tobacco.

Along with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), this is one of two films directed by Kenneth Branagh to feature a clip from Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).

The numbers on the back of Roman's prison uniform are "25101415" or "25 October 1415," the date of the Battle of Agincourt fought by King Henry V, which was the movie Sir Kenneth Branagh directed prior to this one.

One of the newspapers is dated December 10th, which is Kenneth Branagh's birthday. "Sorry for the in-joke," he said.

Dead Again was inspired by the Hindi movie Kudrat (1981).

The story of Dead Again was loosely adapted in the 1999 progressive rock album Metropolis Pt 2: Scenes from a Memory by prog rock/metal legends, Dream Theater. It is a concept album that features our main character sees a hypnotherapist and discovers that in a past life, he was a woman who was murdered over a lovers quarrel. At the very end of the album it is revealed that the hypnotherapist is the reincarnation of the man who killed our main character's past self. The hypnotherapist murders our main character, thus completing the cycle.

It was while making this movie that producer Lindsay Doran discovered that she shared a great love of Jane Austen with Emma Thompson. She then asked Thompson to adapt one of Austen's novels for her next project, Sense and Sensibility (1995).


Cozy Carlisle: Someone is either a smoker or a nonsmoker. There's no in-between. The trick is to find out which one you are, and be that. If you're a nonsmoker, you'll know.

Gray Baker: [smokes a cigarette through his trach hole; hands the pack of cigs back to Mike]
Mike Church: Keep 'em. I just quit.

Cozy Carlisle: You take what you've learned from this life and use it in the next. That's karma.
Mike Church: I thought karma was I do something bad in this life and I'm a termite in the next.
Cozy Carlisle: Hey, if you ask me, pal, you're already a termite in this life in a shitty suit, OK?

Gray Baker: Aren't you afraid of dying?
Roman Strauss: To die is different than what anyone supposes and luckier.
Gray Baker: Is that a line from your opera?
Roman Strauss: It's Walt Whitman. I can't take credit for everything, Mr. Baker.
Gray Baker: You really believe that you're lucky to die?
Roman Strauss: What I believe, Mr Baker, is that this is all far from over.

Pete: I've known Mike Church forever. He would never hurt her.
Franklyn Madson: This is fate we're talking about, and if fate works at all, it works because people think that THIS TIME, it isn't going to happen!

Cozy Carlisle: Hey, thumbdick, I was a damn good shrink. Nineteen years I worked with a lot of people through a lot of shit. OK, I slept with a patient or two. It's not like I didn't care about them. I loved being a doctor. I used to not charge half my patients. Then the fucking state comes along, they send in some bitch undercover, and I'm fucked. Life isn't fair, is it?

Franklyn Madson: Actually, I'm a hypnotist.
Mike Church: OK, here's the water, there's the door, sorry about the stairs.

Mike Church: I'm not looking for Ms. Right; I'm looking for Ms. Right Now.

Grace: [tries to shoot Franklyn but the gun jams]
Franklyn Madson: [sighs] Antiques!

Mike Church: Why would she want to kill me now?
Cozy Carlisle: Why do women do anything?

Pete: [jokingly talking about Grace who's outside the door] Oh, and you don't have to worry about forgetting her name... she's already forgotten it for you!

Mike Church: You telling me to kill her?
Cozy Carlisle: You do her before she does you.
Mike Church: I thought karma was like, you learn something from one lifetime to another.
Cozy Carlisle: Well, that's what you learned from this life. I mean, karmically, self-defence is quite cool.
posted by orange swan (10 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This movie is why I cannot hand someone a pair of scissors without saying "These...are for you."
posted by amarynth at 10:51 AM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

I loved this movie when I saw in in the theatre and since then, I think I've come across it maybe once. I have no idea why it never really ended up in TV rotation (or at least didn't on the non-preimium channels that I seem to get). I'd be thrilled to be flipping channels and come across it.
posted by sardonyx at 11:15 AM on September 10, 2022

I originally saw this movie within a year or so of it coming out, and though I enjoyed it a lot at that time (I love film noir, and this was probably the first example of the genre I'd ever seen) I hadn't rewatched it until last night. It didn't hold up quite as well as I hoped it would.

I agree with the critics who said that the love stories needed more development -- it would have given the movie more emotional resonance. There was one scene where Mike is hauling Amanda around his apartment pulling out all the scissors and handing them to her and yelling at her because she's afraid of him that I found myself recoiling from because it crossed the line into abusive behaviour. They could have had Mike get frustrated with the situation without becoming abusive. I could have done without the spot of misogyny from Robin Williams, too. I found the slow motion murder battle at the end cheesy, and the scissors theme in Amanda's apartment to be way over the top.

This was the first time I'd watched a movie with Robin Williams in it since his death. I didn't find it as difficult as I expected, but then he had just a small part. I still don't know if I can ever watch Dead Poets Society or The Fisher King ever again.

Wayne Knight was quite good as the goofy blabbermouth friend of Mike's. He has quite a lot of presence -- you can't not pay attention to him.

Emma Thompson looked so stunning in Margaret and Roman's wedding scenes that I'd be surprised if she wasn't tempted to claim that this is the actual photo of her and Kenneth Branagh's wedding, rather than, well, this.

I remember quipping to the friend I saw this movie with that that scene of Andy Garcia smoking through his trach hole ought to be shown in high school health classes to get kids to stop/not start smoking. It's not a sight for the faint of heart.
posted by orange swan at 11:30 AM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think Robin Williams role in this may be his best. He utterly sells the idea of a defrocked psychologist who is a) brilliant and b) should not be allowed near vulnerable people.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:14 PM on September 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

I remember quipping to the friend I saw this movie with that that scene of Andy Garcia smoking through his trach hole ought to be shown in high school health classes to get kids to stop/not start smoking. It's not a sight for the faint of heart.

I've seen an anti-smoking presentation that showed someone IRL doing just that, although I think that it was a still photo.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:20 PM on September 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

As luck would have it, I recently re-watched this movie (my wife had never seen it, I hadn't seen it since the 90s). Reminded me what a pleasure it is to watch great actors in a grown-up movie. Kenneth Branagh showing little cigarette-craving tics and Robin Williams catching him.
posted by adamrice at 4:25 PM on September 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

I saw this in the theatre when it first came out and was enchanted. I thought the mystery was clever, didn’t figure it out till the reveal, and enjoyed the romance. (I do remember being uncomfortable at Mike’s behaviour yelling at Amanda and shoving all the scissors at her.)

I also remember being kind of surprised at Robin Williams’ cameo in it, I guess because I wasn’t used to seeing him be so unlikeable. I thought he did a great job and was impressed he was willing to play against type like that.

Andy Garcia’s smoking made a big impression on me. Kind of hard to forget that.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 8:45 PM on September 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Ahhh I loved this movie when I was in high school. Hadn't thought about it in years! Time for a rewatch.
posted by emd3737 at 2:45 AM on September 12, 2022

I saw this movie when it came out and loved it.
posted by Gelatin at 8:48 AM on September 12, 2022

I also loved this movie back in the day, and watched it repeatedly.

I liked that it was noir and campy and time travel and a little weird (helllllo, goat skull in the meat locker scene) and hilariously quotable. It has everything! And the stars (Thompson, Branagh, Garcia...) are gorgeous and everyone hams it up.

Just wonderful stuff.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:15 PM on September 13, 2022 [1 favorite]

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