TNB Night Owl — Noir Side Street Presents “Repeat Performance”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s film is 1947’s gothic noir movie, “Repeat Performance,” starring Joan Leslie (Sheila Page), Louis Hayward (Barney Page), Virginia Field (Paula Costello), Tom Conway (John Friday), Richard Basehart (William Williams), Natalie Schafer (Eloise Shaw), Benay Venuta (Bess Michaels), Ilka Grüning (Mattie), and John Ireland (Narrator). Directed by Alfred L. Werker; cinematography by L. William O’Connell. Produced by Aubrey Schenck for Bryan Foy Productions; distributed by Eagle-Lion Films. Music by George Antheil. Screenplay by Walter Bullock; based on the novel “Repeat Performance,” by William O’Farrell.

Run-time is 92 minutes.

The film is quite different from the novel in some ways, given that there were changes in both the crew behind the camera, as well as cast in front of it. The biggest changes to the original story were the character of William–in the film he’s William Williams, a sensitive poet (and probably gay, though this isn’t obvious); in the novel he’s referred to as William and Mary Williams, who’s a gay cross-dressing poet, sexually involved with his patron. The other major change is in the characters of Barney and Sheila Page, which were rewritten as the film went through cast changes. When Joan Leslie joined the project, Sheila was rewritten as the central character, rather than Barney.

The film begins with a panning shot across NYC; it’s almost midnight on New Year’s Eve. As the camera finally comes to rest on the french doors of a posh Manhattan apartment, two gunshots ring out, the doors fling open, and a woman stands in a very shadowy room. The camera pushes in further, until we see a man lying dead on the floor.

And thus begins “Repeat Performance,” a film noir film lost for decades, until the Film Noir Foundation secured a copy and restored it. This print you’re looking at isn’t a good one; it certainly isn’t the fully restored version, and it has Spanish captions on the bottom of the screen, for no apparent reason. But, hey… this is the best copy available on YouTube for free.

I wanted to share this one, because it’s a favorite of mine; and hopefully you’ll enjoy it, as well. The story is not your usual film noir, insofar as this one involves time travel. (Yes, you read that right.) Eddie Muller tells us in his intro to the film on his TCM program Noir Alley that this film was the one people would most request he find and restore. It’s the kind of story that sticks with people. (It would have to be, if they’re still thinking about it 40, 50, 60… even 75 years later!)

So let’s do a deep dive into the question of Fate, time travel, and whether or not you could really change history, if you had the chance…

We don’t know anything of the events which led up to the moment of the shooting; all we know is Sheila was holding the gun and tosses it away from her as we hear pounding at the apartment door. Panicking, she grabs her fur coat (hey, it’s New Year’s Eve in NYC. A girl needs something to keep herself warm!), the gun, and her clutch bag before skedaddling out the French doors to safety.

Clocks around the city begin chiming midnight as Sheila reaches a bar where some of her friends are busy ringing in the new year. She manages to get William away from the others, but before she can tell him what’s happened, Bess joins them, making a dig about Paula (one of the women who was with the group of friends earlier). We pick up from context that Sheila doesn’t like Paula, because she has stolen Sheila’s husband. Once William gets Bess to leave them alone, Sheila admits to him she’s just shot and killed Barney. William suggests they go see John Friday. As William fetches his coat, Sheila drops onto a bench near the door to wait for him, which gives the director the opportunity to give us some backstory without saying a word in dialogue.

Sheila sitting by the door.

In that one shot, it’s established John Friday is a producer, Sheila Page is a highly successful actress, and Paula — the rival for her husband’s affections — is the playwright of the hit Broadway show, “Say Goodbye,” in which Sheila is starring.

Now at this point, you’re probably asking, “Didn’t she promise us time travel? Where’s the time travel?” Hold your horses!

As they enter the building, Sheila pauses long enough for William to admit, “I wish it’d been me that shot Barney. I would’ve if you’d asked me, Sheila.”

Sheila says, “Dear William. You’ve had a bad year, too, haven’t you? A terrible year.”

“It hasn’t been good,” he agrees.

“I wish we could live it over again.”

“If we only could.”

“I wouldn’t make the same mistakes,” she states. “One thing, I wouldn’t go to London. And Barney would never meet Paula. This whole, horrible thing could’ve been avoided just by not going to London a year ago.”

“You didn’t know that, Sheila.”

“I do now.” The two begin walking up the grand, sweeping staircase together. “It’s like a play; we’re out of town trying it out. We find the third act is wrong. It’s rewritten, all different. We play it over again and it’s right, fine. That’s what I’d like to do with this year: rewrite it, play it over again. But I can’t, it’s too late.”

Okay… we’re being set up, right? It’s almost as if this bit of dialogue is the incantation to the spell that’s about to be cast.

She goes on talking for a bit more, but then turns to ask a question of William, only to find he’s vanished! (Thanks to another deft bit of directing and blocking. No special camera tricks necessary, but highly effective, nonetheless.)

That’s all you’re going to get about the mechanics of how her trip back through time was achieved. And honestly, thank goodness! Because nothing ruins a time travel story more than getting bogged down by the mechanics of how time travel works. Just chalk this up to New Year’s Eve magic and a wish made at just the right moment. Is that a silly and improbable plot device for a story? Okay, yeah, sure. And yet, why does this film resonate with viewers to such an extent? Don’t most of us have some moment in our lives we’d like to relive? Whether it’s a failed romance, an opportunity we missed out on, or a tragic event we want to undo. Going back in time and righting some wrong is a universal theme, and that’s why this film speaks to people.

So sit back, relax, and willingly suspend your disbelief for an hour-and-a-half in order to enjoy “Repeat Performance.”

I mentioned how this is a story about Fate, and whether you can change the past. In the novel, it takes a very fatalistic attitude that there’s nothing you can do, really, to change anything. In the film, there are ways in which 1946.2 differs from the first time through, but I’m not going to tell you whether any big events can be changed or not. You’ll just have to watch it to find out!

There is one plot point in which the novel excels the film, involving William and the justification for why he has a very bad year during 1946.1.

The music sets the mood and creates a dreamlike quality, which is a good accompaniment to the story.

Everything about this film is wonderful, and it’s a credit to the team–particularly the writers–to change the source material so much yet remain true to the spirit of the original story. Also, the dialogue is so much better in the film than the book. Honestly, for me, the film edges the novel just a bit because of these factors.

This film scores 4.75 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs.

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