To Kill a Dead Man (1994)

UK / 10.5 minutes / bw / Fat Fish Dir & Cine: Alexander Hemming Pr: Lizzie Ross Scr: Portishead Cast: Geoff Barrow, Tim Bishop, Beth Gibbons, Dave MacDonald, Richard Newell, Adrian Utley.

To Kill a Dead Man - 2 the assassin () readies himself

The assassin (Geoff Barrow) readies himself.

From the opening credits:

In 1994 we conceived and made “To Kill a Dead Man”. We realized very quickly afterwards that we had grossly underestimated just how tough it is to write, design, act and perform a short film. So prepare yourselves, here it is . . .

 This is the movie from which were drawn the eleven stills featured in the booklet of the Portishead CD Dummy; the printed versions are in color although the movie itself is in stylish bw. There’s no dialogue.

To Kill a Dead Man - 3 In the crosshairs . . .

The target.

In an attic somewhere sits a man (uncredited) playing chess, sometimes solo, sometimes competitively. We sense that he’s masterminding events outside. A lone sniper (Barrow) assassinates a man who’s seemingly a foreign potentate of some kind. The dead man’s wife (Gibbons) is rushed from the scene and treated in hospital for shock; she has dreams and nightmares of her husband being still alive and coming to visit her. But then it seems as if she’s in fact complicit with the conspirators; furthermore, so it seems is her husband, who’s still alive . . .

To Kill a Dead Man - 4 The wife (Beth Gibbons) recovering from the trauma

The wife (Beth Gibbons) recovering from the trauma.

The production values are superb, some of the imagery’s very striking, and the cinematography is deliciously noirish, while the soundtrack’s by Portishead—nuff said. Yet, for a movie that runs, sans opening and closing credits, for something under nine minutes, this does seem in places funereally paced. In particular, the assassin seems to spend forever reaching his position and setting himself up; by comparison, the shooting and its immediate aftermath appear hurried. I haven’t been able to establish in my own mind whether the story is fiendishly clever or just incoherent. Either way, this is certainly an intriguing curio for Portishead fans and film noir aficionados alike.

To Kill a Dead Man - 5 In one of her dreams, the wife (BG) sees flower petals snow from ceiling

In one of her dreams, the wife (Beth Gibbons) sees flower petals snow from ceiling.



The movie can be found easily on YouTube. Dummy, which is one of the great rock albums, is available on Amazon in various forms: CD, MP3 album and limited edition vinyl LP.

2 thoughts on “To Kill a Dead Man (1994)

  1. I finally took a good at this John, and I must say you are right: very impressive production values. Portishead’s score is superbly attuned to the mood, and in fact helps to create it. As you in your excellent analysis the short film is far more difficult to negotiate than many think. Its always tough to pare down.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam! Watching the movie made me go dig out my copy of Dummy for a trip down Memory Lane. It must be among the most-played CDs in my collection.

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