Repeat Performance (1947)

Repeat Performance (1947) is a lousy husband murder fantasy amnesia film noir with Joan Leslie, Louis Hayward, Richard Basehart, Tom Conway and Virginia Field.

One of the strengths of 1940s film noir was the element of the fantastic, which was often created by closed studio sets and incredible coincidences in the storytelling, in which characters acted out dark fantasies for real, with as little realism as possible — another world often being created by the mis en scene and the strange happenings.

Repeat Performance (1947) is something of an outlier in that the fantasy within it is manifest. Like other film noir which quickly taps into a national unconscious and plays out a murderous what-if, Repeat Performance tells a wild story in which the wild elements are simply givens that are accepted from the off.

Here, on New Year's Eve 1946, actress Sheila Page is (Joan Leslie) shoots her husband Barney in the first moments —  or at least she appears to, as we begin with a bang and find her standing over his body with a gun in her hand. She panics and goes to two friends for help. While seeking help from her friends, and because it is New Years, she wishes that she could live 1946 all over again.

Richard Basehart and Joan Leslie in Repeat Performance (1947)

Joan Leslie in Repeat Performance (1947)

Magically, on the way to see her producer John Friday for advice, she tells the poet William Williams about her desire for a re-do exactly at the strike of midnight on New Year's. Her wish is granted and she is transported back to the beginning of 1946 with her husband alive. 

Perhaps in the absence of strictly defined fantasy, horror and ghost genres, film noir scraped up the edges of many a fantastical tale, such as this one. Repeat Performance (1947) is not film noir because of swinish and morally failed characters lurking in the shadows, committing murders and feeling the net tying slowly around their neck.

But Repeat Performance (1947) is film noir by dint of a pure fantasy which is almost like a ghost story in its fateful drag towards a conclusion — a woman with a chance to avoid her fate, and plays almost the opposite of the well-entrenched style of amnesia noir  — in Repeat Performance, because Joan Leslie goes back an entire year in her life, it is almost as if everyone else has amnesia, and she does not. A cool twist if ever there was once.

Joan Leslie and Louis Hayward in Repeat Performance (1947)

Virginia Field and Richard Basehart in Repeat Performance (1947)

In this manner, Repeat Performance (1947) is the ultimate flashback story, with its lead played by Joan Leslie having to flashback an entire year. It's a convincing twist on the common flashback technique having the character not quite flash back the story but re-tell the last year which led up to the murder of her husband.

Louis Hayward is a lousy film noir husband in Repeat Performance (1947)

As in the fateful unravelling of most flashback noir the story is framed in a retelling. Unlike all other examples of flashback noir however, the protagonist has the option to make the story turn out a different way — thus for once the possibility of avoiding fate rather than being propelled towards it at neck-breaking speed.

The friendship dynamics and the acting around them are excellent in Repeat Performance (1947). The cast ensure a massively entertaining and dynamic 92 minutes. Joan Leslie is the centre of attention and manages to pull elements of several noir sub-styles into the story — including elements of the paranoid woman narrative.

This is only because she does have every right to be paranoid, thrown back into a world she recognises from the past and with knowledge of people that others cannot explain. Note here a possible emphasis on the feminine over the masculine in Joan Leslie's character — whereas a male protagonist might have gone back in time and used the foresight to gain knowledge of events — Joan Leslie's society actress finds herself using her insight to express knowledge of people she is not supposed to know.

The asylum in film noir 

Her husband and the murder victim in the picture — Barney Page, played by Louis Hayward — is one of the best examples of the lousy husband figure, so well known to followers of 40s noir. He's alcoholic above everything else, and it is wonderful to see how — with her knowledge of the future and the fact that he dies — how tender his wife is to him in light of his bad behaviour.

Louis Hayward and Virginia Field in Repeat Performance (1947)

Tom Conway and Joan Leslie in Repeat Performance (1947)

And bad he is. Louis Hayward as Barney Page is snide and inconsiderate, ungrateful, hateful and hurtful, and finds his charming wife boring and much prefers the charms of writer Paula Costello, played by Virginia Field.

His lousiness knows no bounds in fact and bleeds into psychopathy when he has an amazing accident in the theatre, at a party, drunkenly falling off a balcony and temporarily paralysing himself. Louis Hayward — as he does in the Fritz Lang movie House by the River (1950) plays a surface smooth villain who is so replete with faults, that he does border on psychopathy, unable to contain his feelings, which are generally negative, and tend towards the mean and cheating side.

To contrast this is Richard Basehart's character, the writer William Williams. The beauty of this character is that because he is a poet, he is able to join Joan Leslie in the fantasy, and is the one who believes her. Also however, because he is a poet, and similarly touched in the head and maybe not able to handle the fantastical truths of this set up — he is confined to a mental institution.

The scenes between Richard Basehart and Joan Leslie are beautifully platonic in this sense, while in another they have to be. They are a far superior love match than Joan Leslie and Louis Hayward's husband and wife characters comprise, but to remain that moral cleanliness the relationship is simply that of close, close friends — he's the one that does not believe she is mad, and is ironically locked up for madness himself.

Because he believes in the fantastical time travel element of the story however, he does know is future because she tells it to him — and so his suffering is minimised, as he knows he will escape, and that he can do so at any time. So while Joan Leslie's character is constrained by the time travel, her best friend is liberated by it. 

In the book Repeat Performance by William O'Farrell, the Richard Basehart character called William Williams is a cross dressing poet — an element diligently removed by the production. In fact, this aspect is completely excised and not even left as coded, as homosexuality or queerness usually is in the 1940s and in film noir.

New Year in fantasy film noir Repeat Performance (1947)

The relationship between William Willaims and Sheila Page is peculiarly platonic, but at the same time it also functions magically because of the secret they share, and the adventure they have, with a satisfying conclusion that morally exonerates Sheila's desire, her urge, the need to kill her lousy husband, for being the philandering drinking meano that he is. 

The time travel teaches her patience which is a wonderful thing — Richard Basehart as William Williams already has patience, the patience of his poet's profession, and his patience to bear out the asylum in which he lives — for it is soon back to this asylum for him so it is just as well he likes it and feels he belongs there — as he exonerates himself from the crime for reasons of madness — merry madness — which is interesting because unmerry madness is the entire plot of the outstanding Joan Crawford film noir Possessed (1949) — her character also exonerated for reasons of madness.

Miserable head injuries among lousy husbands in film noir.

Fantasy theatre soap-opera noir never was so good. It's a whimsy of a movie until the noir train pulls in, largely in the force of the alcohol, which is fiendishly driving Louis Hayward as the dissolute and weak Barney.

Strong opening and closing sequences frame the melodrama and back-stage and party drama of Repeat Performance (1947). This includes the narration (given by John Ireland) — necessary to signal by means of another frame that we are going to noir-noir. 

The wind suddenly blows in some French doors, we hear some gun shots, and then tracking along with the camera we are down old noir alley, that's what they say.

Creepy love at Christmas in film noir Repeat Performance (1947)

The final Barney's madness megathalon from Louis Hayward, sporting bandages and having lost it entirely, having gone into a Dr Phebes-like booze-maddened lustathon for Virginia Field and then being let down, finds Repeat Performance turned instantly to murder is psychiatric film noir. 

Fantasy in the 1940s was not entirely defined in the movies, allowing a free flow of material such as Repeat Performance (1947) in which there is no clear line between the real and the wondrous. 

The unbelievable occurs in so many film noir movies, with far-fetched and gloriously outlandish tales being more of the norm within certain directors' fancies. 

A paranoid woman? Joan Leslie in Repeat Performance (1947)

There was in the decade a slowly emerging horror genre, for which see the Universal pictures — The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Invisible Man (1940), and The Wolf Man (1941), along with Val Lewton’s RKO tales such as Cat People (1942), I Married a Witch (1942) and Charles Laughton/Margaret O’Brien in The Canterville Ghost (1944).

There appear also to be a large number of films which follow characters who have died, walked the earth as incorporeal souls, or sold their souls to the devil, and gone to heaven or hell, such as The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Angel on My Shoulder (1946), Heaven Only Knows (1947), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and A Guy Named Joe (1943).

And there are also noir dramas such as Repeat Performance (1947), but also romantic fantasy dramas which flow with magic, and with ease cross the boundaries between the real and unreal, not concerned with spectacle, such as Between Two Worlds (1944) and The Enchanted Cottage (1945).

Alcohol led murder in fantasy film noir Repeat Performance (1947)

Repeat Performance (1947) at Wikipedia

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