‘90s Hard Versus ‘40s Languid


THE FILM: “Dead Again”

THE SETUP: Stay with me on this one. Britain’s golden couple, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, (pictured) who make Demi and Bruce look like trailer trash, star in dual roles. He is Roman, a German conductor executed for the 1948 murder of his wife, and Mike, an ex-L.A. cop. She is Margaret, a concert pianist, and Grace, an L.A. amnesiac. Andy Garcia is a reporter and Robin Williams a defrocked psychiatrist turned grocery clerk.

THE LOOK: Very ‘90s and very ‘40s. In a film that has more twists than a barber pole, the costumes help to distinguish the here and now from the there and then.

They are the work of Phyllis Dalton, who won an Oscar for the spectacular plutocrat-and-proletariat ensembles in “Doctor Zhivago,” and created the medieval grime and splendor of Branagh’s “Henry V.”


Here she dresses the same actors for events taking place more than 40 years apart. Her command of the Zeitgeist of style--the ‘90s hard, bright and tight as plane schedules, against the reborn gorgeousness of the ‘40s--reminds us wistfully that sometimes less is less.

The ‘90s show up as smoggy L.A. pastels and raw edges. The ‘40s, from Death Row to a silk-swagged bedroom, are all chiaroscuro texture. The ‘40s scenes were shot in color but then rendered into black and white, to Dalton’s disappointment. Yet a proper film noir mood needs some noir .

THE GOOD: Thompson the amnesiac looks suitably lost in Branagh’s borrowed wardrobe. But Thompson’s ‘40s garments, from a more innocent time, are properly called gowns: the off-the-shoulder model, inspired by Dalton’s memories of pianist Dame Myra Hess at the Albert Hall; the sweetheart neckline and mermaid drape of a dinner dress; the creamy, damsel-in-distress lingerie, are clothes for women who didn’t dress to show off their muscles.

Branagh’s ‘40s wardrobe, San Quentin denim or evening clothes, is unobtrusive in its critical awareness that a half-inch difference in a collar can make a decade’s difference in look. Notable: Housekeeper Hannah Schygulla’s after-hours clothes, right out of Norman Bates’ mother’s closet, and Robin Williams’ poly-cottons, best described as pungent.

THE BAD: Like his apartment full of Stickley furniture, Branagh dresses beyond the means and taste of any cop or ex-cop I ever met, except one, and he knows who he is. He also knows how hard it is to get an Armani jacket to hang properly over a 9-millimeter semiautomatic. As for Andy Garcia’s Tom Wolfe suit and a chin with more stubble than a Ukrainian wheat field--whatever you think of California casual, that was irredeemably gauche, even in a reporter, even in 1948.

THE SOURCES: Branagh’s clothes are mostly “off the peg,” albeit a pricey one, like Neiman Marcus and Saks. Thompson’s gowns are one-of-a-kind, but ‘40s crowd-scene frocks can be found where Dalton found many of them--the vintage shops of Melrose and points west. You might even fare better than Dalton, who realized too late that she was competing with Halloween costume hunters.

THE PAYOFF: Nice to know the dead can keep their looks.