NOV / DEC 2017: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
Film noir stories love to explore the question of just how much hold the past has over us. Can a person ever outrun their past? Can they atone for past actions? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes, or even the mistakes of others? Or can a person make new choices, a new life? Can someone put the past to rest, leaving them free to begin anew?
Most noir stories lean toward the fatalistic, pessimistic side of these questions. From Out of the Past (1947) to Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) to L.A. Confidential (1997), often a person’s past will catch up with them and mess up whatever they’re trying to do with their lives now, for good or evil. The 1991 film Dead Again plays with those same questions. A neo-noir with two mysteries and two romances, it boasts the best use of scissors as a weapon since Dial ‘M’ for Murder. And it explores the idea of two people trying to figure out if they’re doomed to repeat the past, or if they’re free to create new lives for themselves.
Although I don’t believe in reincarnation myself, I find it a fun concept to explore in fiction. Dead Again begins when an amnesiac (Emma Thompson) appears at the gate of a charitable home for kids. The nuns who run the home take her in for a day or two, but she has terrifying nightmares, refuses to eat, and can’t talk. The nuns realize they can’t care for her and try to find someone who can. They turn to Mike Church (Kenneth Branagh), a private investigator who specializes in tracking down missing persons. They hope he can reverse his usual methods and find out where this missing woman belongs. She has nowhere to go, so he lets her stay at his apartment while he runs an ad with her picture in the paper and tries to find clues to who she might be.
The first night she stays at his place, she has her terrifying nightmare again — a man leering over her and exclaiming, “These are for you!” while preparing to stab her with a pair of scissors. The man in her dream looks like Mike Church, only with a goatee. A hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) tries to help this unknown woman by putting her in contact with her memories so she can figure out who she is. Only instead of accessing memories of her forgotten past, she remembers a husband and wife named Roman and Margaret Strauss (also Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) whose 1940s love story ended in bloody tragedy.
The woman becomes convinced she’s remembering things that happened, that she used to be Margaret Strauss back in the 1940s. They find pictures of the Strausses, and sure enough, she looks like Margaret, and Mike looks like Roman. From newspaper clippings, they learn that a jury convicted and executed Roman for killing his wife with a pair of scissors. Mike is initially skeptical, but an ex-psychiatrist (Robin Williams) convinces him to take the idea seriously. So he tries to track down a newspaper reporter (Andy Garcia) who did a lot of articles on the mystery fifty years earlier, hoping to find a reason why the woman he’s falling in love with thinks he murdered her in a past life and might do it again.
When I say I have never seen another film like Dead Again, I am not being hyperbolic. And not just because married-at-the-time co-stars Branagh and Thompson play multiple roles. Or because they’re British actors doing such good non-British accents I forget they’re not Americans (or random Europeans). I’ve just never seen a noir film that used such a literal theme of the-past-will-haunt you. And I’ve never seen one focused on that theme that ended quite this way either. I don’t want to ruin the ending, so I’ll just say it’s way more optimistic than I expected. Even if Mike Church and the amnesiac woman he loves can’t outrun the past, they can put it to rest once and for all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s book “Cloaked” now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com