One of the movies that made the rounds of the various Noir City Festival venues in 2013 is a sharp little 1947 sleeper called Repeat Performance (which was one of the restoration projects undertaken by the Film Noir Foundation). It’s been on my “want-to-see” list for many years, owing to a good write-up by Leonard Maltin in his Movie Guide/Classic Movie Digest. Noir aficionado/author Alan K. Rode has described the film as “the noir version of It’s a Wonderful Life,” and his wingman, Facebook chum Vince “Can I freshen up that drink for you?” Keenan, gave fellow Facebookians a heads-up that some kind soul posted the film on YouTube…so it seemed like the perfect film with which to ring in the New Year.
For you see, Performance takes place a few moments before January 1, 1947—with stage actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) standing over the dead body of her husband, playwright Barney Page (Louis Hayward), smoking gun in hand. She eludes capture from the police by wrapping a fur around her nightgown and hightailing it down the backstairs, soon finding herself in a dive where revelers are sweeping out the old year and ringing in the new. One of the barflies is her good friend William Williams (Richard Basehart, in his film debut)—whose folks apparently had no imagination—a poet whom Sheila takes into her confidence and confesses the deed done to her husband. Williams suggests that the two of head for an apartment belonging to another acquaintance, producer John Friday (Tom Conway); he’s scheduled a party at his place but he’ll be able to offer advice on what course of action Sheila should take.
Filled with regret, Sheila admits to William as they climb the stairs to Friday’s apartment that she wishes she could have the chance to do things differently…and that’s when she looks back to see that William is no longer behind her on the stairs. A narrator (an uncredited John Ireland—though for a second I thought it might have been The Whistler) informs us that Sheila has been granted that wish—by the time she enters John’s bachelor digs, she is stunned to learn that it’s January 1, 1946!
And so Repeat Performance allows our heroine a mulligan and repeats the events leading up to her husband’s death—asking the eternal question: does an individual have the power to change their destiny? I’m not going to answer that question—since I don’t want to spoil this film for those who haven’t seen it…and I’m betting that’s a bunch of you, because it’s a rarely seen gem. Some of you might be familiar with a 1989 TV-movie, Turn Back the Clock, that was essentially a remake of Performance (and features star Leslie in a small role)…and there’s also a 1933 feature film titled Turn Back the Clock with Lee Tracy and Mae Clarke that covers similar ground. (If you’ve seen either of these you might be able to dope how it turns out.)
I was thoroughly mesmerized with this little sleeper; it took a few twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I was also impressed with the cast they assembled for this little B-pic: in addition to the people already named you’ll enjoy Virginia Field (as the duplicitous woman who comes between Leslie and Hayward), Natalie “Mrs. Howell” Schafer (as a rich matron who both helps and hurts Basehart’s poet), Benay Venuta and Ilka Grüning (who specialized in housekeepers, generally of the Teutonic variety). Directed by Alfred L. Werker, a journeyman best known for helming The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the film was adapted by Walter Bullock from a novel by William O’Farrell. Released by Eagle-Lion, it appears not to have been included with the other E-L properties (notably He Walked by Night) acquired by MGM-UA a while back (and now apparently in the clutches of Sony); the Wikipedia entry on the film says it was released on VHS and DVD but I’ve never come across it in either format.
Despite its small studio origins, the performances in Performance are excellent. Leslie plays a woman who appears to be a cold-blooded murderess at first glance, but as the events in the film unfold we see that it is she who is the victim…and that Hayward, as her wastrel drunken sot of a husband, is a first-rate 100% wanker. (And Louis is sensational as that, too.) I didn’t care for Basehart’s character at first, but he gradually gets more likable as the film progresses; he has a memorable line towards the end in which he nicely sums up Joan’s situation: “Destiny’s a stubborn old girl, Sheila…she doesn’t like people interfering with her plans…but we tricked her, didn’t we? Anyway…I don’t think she cares about the pattern as long as the result is the same.”
I’d love to see this turn up on legitimate DVD soon (though you can probably track it down at a few mom-and-pop places), and maybe the Film Noir Foundation/UCLA knows of an outlet that can make this happen. So go over to YouTube and catch it while you can…you won’t be sorry.