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Repeat Performance & Noir-O-Meter

repeat performance_noirometer


Posted by Don Malcolm on 12/31/2006 on The Blackboard

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Cinematographer: L. William O’Connell
Music: George Antheil
Screenplay: Walter Bullock
Literary Source: novel by William O’Farrell (1942)

Joan Leslie (Sheila Page)
Louis Hayward (Barney Page)
Virginia Field (Paula Costello)
Tom Conway (John Friday)
Richard Basehart (William Willams)

Natalie Shafer (Eloise Shaw)

As we close out 2006, there is no better noir to highlight in the NOTW than Repeat Performance, that unusual woman’s film/science fiction hybrid. I’m going to cheat a bit and rely on the wonderful IMDb writeup from our great noir ally, Bill MacVicar. I’m going to use his remarks as a springboard for an application of the “noir elements” to this film, as I think the results will be of some general interest. Bill’s review has been put into italics:

Repeat Performance needs urgent rescuing from the black hole it has somehow fallen into. A superior Poverty Row production from Eagle-Lion Studios, it’s imaginatively scripted, played with gusto and never less than fascinating—a curio, film noir in a sci-fi time loop.

On New Year’s Eve, 1947, Joan Leslie shoots and kills her husband, Louis Hayward. She wishes she hadn’t, and her wish comes true—suddenly she’s back in New Year’s Eve, 1946. This proves to be no mere shuffling around of the narrative; she’s been given the year to live over again in hopes of a happier ending. But of course the gimmick serves as a flashback, too, retracing the sequence of events that led (or will lead?) up to the shooting.

Noir elements gleaned:
Use of flashbacks: 10 (15)
The effect of the flashback sequence fades from the viewer’s consciousness as the narrative becomes linear.

A spoken narrative: 1 (5)
Early on, a narrator explains that time is being altered, but disappears from the film once the return to the earlier year is accomplished.

A murder or heist at the center of the narrative: 5 (5)

The title also drops a clue about the picture’s fang-and-claw milieu, New York’s theater world. Leslie’s a star on the Rialto, having come to prominence in one of her husband’s plays. He turned out to be a one-shot wonder, however, resorting to the bottle in resentment of his failure and his wife’s success (there are parallels to A Star Is Born and to All About Eve). Other characters in this backstage story include Leslie’s producer, Tom Conway; Virginia Field, as a haughty English playwright; Richard Basehart (looking, in his debut, like a young Harrison Ford), as an unhappy poet but loyal friend; and Natalie Schafer, as a viperish patroness of the arts.

Noir elements gleaned:
Femme fatale/homme fatale: 9 (15)
Six points for Hayward, three for Field, two rotters who deserve each other.

Morally ambiguous protagonists: 2 (5)
One for Hayward, one for Field.

Alienated protagonists: 4 (5)

Night club/gambling setting: 2 (5)
Theatre setting; several scenes in bars & night clubs

Urban setting (degree of emphasis): 7 (10)
Urban interiors—the city is always in play, but not in view.

Exotic/remote/barren location setting: 0 (5)

When Leslie suddenly finds herself in last year’s gown, she tries to renegotiate her way through the year, this time in possession of an advance copy of the script, gingerly avoiding its fatal pitfalls. She comes to learn (as do we all) that destiny writes in cement. Luckily for her, it hasn’t quite hardened.

Noir elements gleaned:
Sense of fatalism (spoken/visual): 26 (30)
Docked a bit for soap opera tangents, but the issue of fate is always in play and is a continuing subject of speculation between Leslie and Basehart.

A convoluted story line: 6 (10)
While the narrative is linear, there are twists and turns that are both abrupt and overly ornate. There are references to the difference in events between 1946/1 and 1946/2, but they are all coming from Leslie—her consciousness cuts across the otherwise linear flow of the story.

Story told from the perspective of the criminals: 2 (out of 5)
A tricky element in this case, because the “criminal” perspective comes from the two characters—Leslie and Basehart—who are in on what’s happening. They only control our view of things when discussing how events are/are not conforming to the “original” events.

Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee: 2 (10)
The scriptwriter (Walter Bullock) had no other background in noir; his other work in films was as a songwriter. Thus Bill’s reference to the language of the theatre (and his references to A Star Is Born and All About Eve is apt—there is no hard-boiled language here. There is some repartee, though, in the mordant wit of Basehart’s character, who has several memorable one-liners.

On the first New Year’s Eve, Hayward’s resolution not to drink doesn’t even make it to midnight; he turns sullen and abusive. A spring sojourn to sunny California, while shopping for a new vehicle for Leslie, doesn’t improve his mood. Her next prospect comes from the pen of Field, and Hayward browbeats her into accepting it; he, meanwhile, takes up with its author. Basehart finds himself in the clutches of Schafer, who ends up having him committed to an asylum, while Hayward suffers a drunken fall that paralyzes him. As the year winds to its close, Leslie desperately tries to extricate herself from what she knows is to come…

Noir elements gleaned:
A fall guy: 5 (5)
Leslie is trying to beat a bad rap: will she beat it? If so, will someone else take the fall? Fate is demanding a fall guy…

False accusation (or fear of same): 0 (5)
Leslie is trying to beat a bad rap, but it’s not a false rap. The wish to undo the events that led to the shooting is an argument against fate, not guilt or innocence.

Violence relative to character interaction: 3 (10)
The only overt violence in the film is the shooting of Hayward; the rest is emotional, pushing it toward “women’s film/women’s noir.”

Sexual relationships vs. plot development: 9 (10)
Strange duos and triangles all over the place, and all of the sexual relationships are toxic. The only cross-gender relationship that endures is the psychic kinship between Leslie and Basehart.

A betrayal or a double-cross: 5 (5)
Hayward cheats with Field, and won’t give up on the relationship even after he is injured and she makes it clear that she is no longer interested.

Black-and-white cinematography: 10 (10)

Low angle shooting/expressionistic techniques: 3 (10)
Used sparingly, in the “thriller” sequences and to great effect in the early New Years’ Eve scenes. (Unknown cameraman L. W. O’Connell—who also lensed Decoy—does some wonderful work here.)

Noir vs. gris denoument: 5 (10)
Befitting its mixed status as women’s noir/science fiction, the ending is a middle-of-the-road twist. Fate wins out, but not quite in the way that seemed originally foreordained.

Bill’s assessment:

Despite being an unlikely hodge-podge of noirish, soapish and paranormal elements, the movie never seems stretched or thrown together. The less than luminous cast rises to the occasion, with each member allotted a place in the spotlight. Accept the flaw in the warp or weft of the fabric of time, and Repeat Performance zips along smoothly and convincingly. It’s buried treasure—proof, albeit obscure, that rough magic could sometimes occur even on the outer fringes of the movie industry.

I couldn’t agree more. Leslie is quite good, even though at times she seems to be cribbing from her emotional palette in The Hard Way. Conway is smooth as always. Hayward pushes the envelope a bit, and some have thought he overacts here, but I think he does a fine job of showing his character’s progressive corrosion.

Basehart and Field are the real finds here. Field was an English actress whose regal bearing was pretty much squandered in America; here, at age 30, she plays older quite convincingly, and still has enough “smolder” on hand to seduce Hayward.

While his part is a bit underwritten, Basehart is really terrific here, and pretty much steals the picture despite having less on-screen time than any of the other stars. It makes one want to get hold of the source novel and see if Basehart’s character is fully formed there, or if his pleasing strangeness is the result of screenwriter Bullock.

Summing up those noir elements:

Total score: 120 (200), or 6.0/10

Anything over 100 is a “noir” according to the method.

Category breakdown:

Character elements: 5.8
Mise-en-scene/setting elements: 6.5 (Mise-en-scene 7.2, Setting 4.5)
Plot/screenwriting elements: 5.6 (Plot 7.2, Screenwriting 3.5)

What carries Repeat Performance into noir territory is the thematic and narrative use of fatalism. Fatalism counts for half of the total set of mise-en-scene elements (30 points out of 60); Repeat Performance’s score (26) is quite high (8.8/10—not the highest in all of noir, but very high). In the other mise-en-scene elements, it scores 17 (5.4/10), which is more in keeping with its other scores.

Plot elements are also more prominently noir (flashback structure, sexual relationships vs. plot), while the screenwriting details are the least thing noir about the film.

It is the perfect New Year’s Eve noir, and as Bill says, it deserves rescuing from its obscurity.