Just when it appeared that the noir thriller had seen better days, the British came to the rescue. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson play dual roles in this 1991 detective yarn. We would have to wait another four years for a traditional film noir as good, Denzel Washington's "Devil in a Blue Dress."
But "Dead Again" is less an action picture than "Devil" and more a suspenseful, psychological mystery. Most of its action comes at the end. Paramount's DVD transfer maintains the high standards of their home video line, so the film pleases on all counts.
Mike Church (Branagh, sounding convincingly American) is not your ordinary cinematic gumshoe. Among other things, he's not particularly tough (Bogart), wise cracking (Powell), or world weary (Mitchum). Instead, he's rather boyish and charming and leaves his revolver at home.
Most of Mike's work appears to be missing-persons cases. He was brought up in a Catholic orphanage and from time to time the old priest who raised him calls on him for a favor. This time the service is to investigate the background of a young woman (Thompson) with amnesia, who is also having serious nightmares. In her sleep she keeps seeing herself being stabbed to death by a man supposedly her husband.
With the help of an antique dealer and hypnotist (Derek Jacobi), Church finds out the woman is dreaming of a real murder that happened forty years before. Even more frightening than that, from old newspaper and magazine clippings they discover that the woman who was murdered, Margaret Strauss, and the husband who was convicted and executed for the murder, Roman Strauss, look exactly like the amnesiac woman and Mike Church!
In black-and-white flashback sequences, the Strausses are, of course, played by Thompson and Branagh. As things proceed, everyone begins to worry that history may be on the verge of repeating itself. And to further complicate matters, a fiancee of the woman's shows up claiming that she occasionally loses her memory. Additional characters include Gray Baker (Andy Garcia), an old-time reporter, and Dr. Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams), a washed-up shrink now working as a grocery clerk.
The story delves into the possibilities of reincarnation, of fate, of past lives, and of past-life experiences repeating themselves. The lady may be related in one way or another to the Strauss murder victim, Church may be related to the murderer, and the whole deadly affair may be about to happen all over again. There are a lot of loose ends in the story line, a lot of plot ideas that don't add up, but none of it seems to matter much as we get caught up in the suspense and wonder of it all.
According to "Katz's Film Encyclopedia," the term "film noir" (dark or black film) was derived from an expression French critics of the nineteenth century originally used to describe the British Gothic novel. But today it applies to "a type of film that is characterized by its dark, somber tone and cynical, pessimistic mood." Specifically, film noir portrays "the dark and gloomy underworld of crime and corruption," whose heroes are often "cynical, disillusioned, and insecure loners." In terms of style, the film noir "characteristically abounds with night scenes and deep shadows." All of which applies to "Dead Again," with the possible exception that private-eye Mike Church is not so cynical or disillusioned. He is, however, quite clearly a loner and insecure. Even the background music of the film evokes the period atmosphere of the 1940s and 50s noir genre, not only in the flashback segments but even when the action is set in the present.
All around, "Dead Again" may be too clever by half, but it's entertaining all the way.
Paramount have the distinction here of transferring both a color and a black-and-white print in one, and in both cases the results are fine. The color in the 1.74:1 ratio enhanced picture is smooth and faintly dull, which may indicate the use of faded film stock or an intentionally soft appearance created by the director to complement the older-appearing B&W footage. It's been almost a decade since I saw the movie in a theater, so I have no recollection of what it looked like at the time. In any case, the muted hues work in nicely with the mood of the piece. I observed no instances of any other problems in the video reproduction, no flickering lines, no digital artifacts, no varying color combinations, no age markings of any kind.
The sound, reproduced in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Stereo Surround, is also quite good, though not spectacularly so. There are some good storm scenes and a bit of rain that encompass the listener, but mainly the rear speakers are used for musical ambiance rather than special sonic effects. In fact, in DD 5.1 there is almost as much side information as rear information. That is, a good deal of sound is generated between the front and rear channels. Good dynamics, too, but, again, not spectacular.
Two separate audio commentary tracks come with the disc, one with star and director Kenneth Branagh and another with producer Lindsay Doran and screenwriter Scott Frank. Oddly, Paramount include a mere fourteen scene selections for a 101-minute movie. A theatrical trailer, spoken languages in English and French, and English subtitles for the hearing impaired conclude the special-features package.
"Dead Again" is designed to remind one of things like "Laura," "Rebecca," "Gaslight," "Spellbound," "Night and the City," "Dark Passage," and "The Lady from Shanghai." At the same time, it has enough twists and turns to keep one guessing right up to its over-the-top conclusion. What's more, plot and character variations are sufficient in number to warrant repeat viewings, which is what DVD is all about. Recommended.