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Repeat Performance vs. Hardboiled

Introduction

The following is my response to Don Malcolm’s analysis of Repeat Performance (RP), which he posted on December 31, 2006, on the website The Blackboard. From 2006 – 2014, Don was the editor of Noir City, the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-zine. His book Noir in the Sixties is forthcoming.

To see Don Malcolm’s evaluation of Repeat Performance, click Repeat Performance & Noir-O-Meter.

Don uses his “noir-o-meter” to evaluate the “noir elements” in RP by assigning points for each element (such as 9 of 15, or 2 of 5, or 5 of 5, etc.) and then totaling the points to determine how noir RP is.

On January 25, 2008, the sixth annual Noir City film noir festival, hosted by the Film Noir Foundation at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, opened with a screening of Repeat Performance and a special appearance by the co-star, Joan Leslie. I introduced myself to her and gave her a large manilla envelope. She was very gracious when I said that inside the envelope were printouts of Don’s interpretation of RP, as well as my own analysis. A few months later I received the following kind note from her:

Dear Dan,

Thanks so much for the in-depth paper you gave me at the Castro Theater when Repeat Performance was shown! Your critique was excellent, and much closer to what the script and the producer and director intended. I think! Of course, it was not a “flashback”–and of course Sheila was not a “fall guy.” I enjoyed your interpretation, and I’m flattered that you took the time to do it.

Sincerely,

Joan Leslie

Presentation

Director: Alfred L. Werker. Screenplay: Walter Bullock based on the novel by Walter O’Farrell. Producer: Aubrey Schenck. Cinematographer: L. William O’Connell. Music: George Antheil. Art Director: Edward C. Jewell. Editor: Louis H. Sackin. Cast: Louis Hayward (Barney Page), Joan Leslie (Sheila Page), Virginia Field (Paula Costello), Tom Conway (John Friday), Richard Basehart (William Williams), Natalie Schafer (Bess Michaels). Released: Aubrey Schenck Productions, May 22, 1947. 91 minutes.

From the general (whether RP is, in fact, a film noir) to the particulars of Don’s noir elements, RP raises a number of issues that I think are important to consider as part of the discussion about film noir (and women’s noirs).

To begin with, I want to offer a justification for seeing RP as a film noir without qualification. In Don’s analysis, he first calls RP an “unusual woman’s film/science fiction hybrid,” and later he says it is a “woman’s noir/science fiction.”

I think that the evaluation of any film noir should start by looking at its date and thinking about its historical context. (For me, consideration of the date precedes other facts, such as the director, the lead actors, the scriptwriter/literary source, or the studio.)

RP was released in 1947, during years when “time” was particularly integral to ways that film noirs were “anti-classical,” in contrast to the 1930s “classical” Hollywood visual and narrative styles. (For more about the historical context for the noir visual style, see the page What Explains the Visual Style of Film Noir and, in the page Spy Noirs & the Origins of Film Noir, see the section What Explains the Noir Style in the Origins of Film Noir?)

Below is a description of these classical styles by Richard Armstrong in his book, Understanding Realism (British Film Institute, 2005).

“In the Hollywood film, style must be subordinate to the film’s narrative. No aspect of the way in which the film tells its story must get in the way of our ability to follow the story itself. This means that camerawork, editing, lighting and color must serve the storyline, place you in the most advantageous position to see what is going on and banish any doubt about what you see. There must be no weird angles, choppy cutting or strange lens filters to make you aware of the film as a film, as opposed to real life, for Hollywood realism is designed to make you think that life is how it looks in the movies…Hollywood editing is designed to follow the logic of a chronological narrative. In Hollywood ‘continuity editing’ as it is called, one plot twist follows on from the last according to the laws of cause and effect. Time and space are logically presented so as to orient you in an apparently natural sequence of events…Scenes unfold according to the standard Hollywood shot/reverse-shot format. Hollywood editing is often referred to as ‘invisible editing’ because it helps the narrative along, without distracting us. We are in effect too busy following the narrative to notice the editing…While shot/reverse-shot editing sets up the impression that you are ‘listening in’ on a conversation, fades and dissolves signal transitions between scenes, and montages give the impression of a series of events or the passage of time, other editing tricks have the effect of disrupting the reality effect. Jump cuts disrupt the illusion, and rapid cutting can bewilder the spectator. Flashbacks and flash-forwards can disrupt the action by introducing past or future events into the present. With Hollywood editing, the bottom line is always putting you in the most advantageous spot to see who is doing what. What is powerful about filmic conventions is that they naturalize particular way of showing, and making sense of, experience.” (13, 16, 17, 18)

Don’s first noir element is “use of flashbacks.” He notes that after a flashback the story in RP becomes “linear.” (That is, at the start of RP, Louis Hayward is murdered on New Year’s Eve 1946. Then the story flashes back to New Year’s Eve 1945 and unfolds until we are back at New Year’s Eve 1946.)

The flashback occurs often in film noir — not immediately after Citizen Kane (1941) but toward the end of WWII and through the rest of the 1940s. It provides an anti-classical handling of time in plots. The years of the Depression and WWII had massively disrupted people’s lives. These events are the most significant in the turn toward anti-classical visual styles and narrative techniques in movies in general, not just in film noirs. (For more about classical vs. anti-classical see the page What Explains the Visual Style of Film Noir?)

Furthermore, flashbacks aren’t the only way that the past vs. the present is brought into film noirs. After WWII, male characters tend to “come back” after varying lengths of absence. Some are explicitly veterans, such as Alan Ladd in The Blue Dahlia (1946). But usually the war is displaced. They return from trips, hospitals, prisons, and bouts of amnesia. When we think about a film noir and its historical context, we should always be alert to displacement. RP is anything but an exception!

There are two principal kinds of flashbacks in film noir. Either there is only one flashback, as in Criss Cross (1948), or there are flashbacks within flashbacks, as in The Locket (1946). With either kind, the narrative is anti-classical. (For a thorough examination of flashbacks in Hollywood films, especially in the early 1940s, see Chapter 2, “Time and Time Again,” in David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (The University of Chicago Press, 2017. For Bordwell, “Recounting and recalling are the twin poles of traditional flashback framing….[82])

However, the flashback in RP is uniquely unstable; it is especially anti-classical. In fact, it bursts the definition of flashback. According to Wikepedia:

“In literature, film, television and other media, a flashback (also called analepsis) is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened prior to the story’s primary sequence of events or to fill in crucial backstory.”

Take Double Indemnity (1944). Fred MacMurray starts dictating at the beginning of the film, then there’s the flashback, and at the end of the flashback we return to him still dictating.

In major contrast, the narrative device in RP isn’t used to recount events that have happened, as is done via a flashback. The narrative device doesn’t lead back to a known starting-point (like MacMurray still dictating) but toward an unexpected one. Throughout RP the characters experience events the second time in ways unlike the first time. This means the title, Repeat Performance, is ironic because the characters are living through 1946 differently. They are not reliving or repeating the year. Because living a year again differently is too improbable, whereas learning about the past is rational, the narrative in RP has been judged as not presenting “real” fiction. This is the basis for calling the movie something like science fiction or fantasy.

I see the narrative device in RP as a novel way of working out the crime story in the film. To me this unusual narrative device doesn’t cause the movie to be something other than just a crime story, like a hybrid (a women’s noir/science fiction) or otherwise (an adult fantasy drama). I think it is an appropriate, albeit unique, narrative device to be used around 1947. At this time there are other narrative devices that are acknowledged as flashbacks in movie after movie, especially in film noirs. The Locket (1946) goes to one extreme with its multiple flashbacks within flashbacks; Stage Fright (1950) goes to another extreme with its false flashback; and RP goes to a different extreme with its Mulligan narrative: a do-over of history.

In RP, I strongly believe that the narrative device, which approximates but is distinct from a flashback, has to been considered in its historical context. Furthermore, the film’s historical context is significant for appreciating RP as a woman’s film noir. And giving a closer look at RP as a woman’s noir means reconsidering Don’s noir elements.

Don says, “I’m going to use [Bill MacVear’s] remarks as a springboard for an application of THE ‘noir elements’ to this film” (my capital letters). Consequently, he is suggesting there is a specific set of noir elements that can be used to evaluate whether a movie is or is not a film noir. And, if it is a film noir, then these fixed elements can show just how noir it is.

I want to focus on Don’s elements that deal with plot and character, not the elements about visual style. His elements are precisely those that are associated with the hardboiled paradigm. Therefore, by his selection of hardboiled noir elements for his “noir-o-meter,” he has, by definition, privileged men’s noirs at the expense of women’s noirs.

A particular “formula” predominates in the plots of both crime and spy film noirs during 1940-1944. I call this formula “the war noir.” (For more explanation and historical analysis of the war noirs, see the page Film Noir Plot Elements: WWII vs Postwar.)

Afterwards, two different “bodies” of crime film noirs begin: men’s noirs (following Double Indemnity, with one of the first femme fatales) and women’s noirs (following Gaslight, with the first woman in distress). I am not suggesting all film noirs after 1944 fall into either group, but only that a lot of film noirs after this year belong to one group or the other. (For a table comparing film noirs with a woman in distress vs. a femme fatale, see the page Woman in Distress vs. Femme Fatale.)

Don’s noir elements closely fit the narrative and characters in, for example, Double Indemnity. But what happens if you apply his elements to Gaslight? A similar problem occurs with RP. In other words, Don’s elements are much more likely to be found in a man’s noir. When his elements are applied to a woman’s noir, they don’t work nearly as well because his elements are appropriate for the kind of plot and characters associated with the hardboiled paradigm. (For a comparison of the published sources of women’s noirs vs. men’s noirs, see these pages: Published Sources: Women’s Noirs and Published Sources: Men’s Noirs.)

For example, RP scores badly on “hard-boiled dialogue/repartee.” Of course a woman’s noir may not have any hardboiled dialogue. In which case, how can it rack up points? This is a textbook case of my objection to “privileging” the hardboiled paradigm. How appropriate is it to apply this noir element to Gaslight? Or Notorious (1946)?

Don sees Joan Leslie as a “fall guy” because she is “trying to beat a bad rap.” This isn’t an accurate use of the term fall guy. Think of Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Maltese Falcon (1941). As Wikipedia says:

“A fall guy is a person used as a scapegoat to take the blame for someone else’s actions, or someone at the butt of jokes. One placed in the position of fall guy is often referred to as ‘taking the fall.’ In the film industry, a fall guy is a form of stock character.”

Trying to beat a rap is not the same as being made a scapegoat. Beating a rap is what somebody tries to do. On the contrary, being a fall guy is what is done to somebody. A fall guy is likely to appear in men’s noirs (though not all, of course) and isn’t likely to appear in women’s noirs.

Don sees Virginia Field as a femme fatale. A femme fatale is likely to appear in men’s noirs (though not all, of course). How is Field a femme fatale to Louis Hayward? Isn’t she, in fact, the Other Woman (Leslie’s rival)?

To better understand the relationship between Field and Hayward, first we need to consider the relationship between Hayward and Leslie. To do so, we have to turn away from Don’s noir-o-meter, which privileges a man’s noir, in order to look at RP very differently, as a woman’s noir.

As a rule of thumb, if a film noir has romance — which can be presented in many ways (such as around marriage/adultery or relationship-building/destroying) — at the heart of its story, then we should be on the lookout for evidence of a woman’s noir. Take, for example, Pitfall (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950) and A Kiss Before Dying (1956). Each has a crime, which is secondary to matters of love, namely problems with love. (For more about Virginia Field and adultery, and Joan Leslie and failed marriage, see below Addendum I: Adultery Unpunished and Divorce Displaced.)

Befitting a woman’s noir from 1947, RP is about the crisis of Leslie’s marriage. Befitting this crisis is its origins in a key social condition in post-war America, which is that women had gotten jobs during the war, and men were confronting that fact, as well as trying to get their demobilized lives going again.

RP displaces this situation. In 1941, Hayward has a successful play on Broadway (i.e., before America enters the war in early December). Leslie becomes a star in the play; that is, she becomes a worker. Afterwards, Hayward is unable to write another hit. Leslie’s career continues to shine, and Hayward becomes very resentful. He turns to the bottle. At their New Year’s Eve party, he grouses that all the guests except two are his wife’s friends. When Field shows interest in him at the party, he turns to her.

Throughout the movie Hayward sees his manhood in crisis, which he blames on Leslie. Repeatedly, he accuses Leslie of trying to demean him. When she speaks plainly about what is happening to him, it infuriates him.

Referring to a play written by Field, Hayward tells Leslie, “Something like this doesn’t turn up everyday.” She replies, “It might. I might be rehearsing a play by my husband, if Barney Page would spend more time writing plays than reading them.”

He shows he’s been hurt by that remark, and she apologizes. (She’s really doesn’t want to offend him.) Later in the same scene, he scoffs at her, “There. I’ve made a decision. Do you mind terribly, Sheila?” His drinking started after people referred to him as, “Sheila Page’s husband” and “Mr. Sheila Page.”

Leslie wants “to right all these wrongs.” But how can she, other than by giving up her career?

To cap off Hayward’s problems, he gets paralyzed (read into this, if you will, his increasing loss of manhood, if not his impotence). Leslie devotedly nurses him, but he wants nothing more to do with her and remains in a wheelchair. On the repeat of New Year’s Eve 1946 he learns that Field is leaving New York (and him). He rises from the wheelchair and manages to get to Field on the ship she’s taking to England, but she wants nothing more to do with him. She tells him a lie that she has made a bargain with Leslie to break up with him.

Enraged, Hayward returns to his apartment and denounces Leslie:

“I can walk as well as any man. You thought I’d stop walking forever, didn’t you? You tried to stop me from so many things – stop me from drinking, from loving and being loved. Maybe you hoped one day you’d stop me from living. I’ve got to kill you. If I don’t, you’ll try to live my life for me. You’ll try to stop me again from living my life the way I want to live. You’re guilty. You tried to destroy me and you almost succeeded.”

As Leslie lives through 1946 again, she repeatedly tries to restore her marriage. This is what the film focuses on, which is most appropriate for a woman’s noir. The focus is not, as Don claims, on her “trying to beat a bad rap,” which would be suitable for a man’s noir.

What kind of character is Sheila Page? She isn’t the kind of character found in a man’s noir. Rather, she is the quintessential character of a woman’s noir — in the film noir tradition established by Gaslight — she is a woman in distress. Consider the following three successive ways the plot establishes her as this character.

First, at the start of the movie she is in distress because she has shot and killed her husband. But she isn’t glad that he is dead. On the contrary, she is remorseful. She wishes she could live the year again so that it might turn out differently. Furthermore, we are never shown the circumstances that led her to fire the pistol. Nothing in the flashback indicates that she wants Hayward dead. On the contrary, she refuses to give up on him, no matter how badly he treats her.

In one of his noir elements, Don says RP is a “story told from the perspective of the criminals.” However, there’s no evidence that Leslie is a criminal. A story told from the perspective of a criminal is likely to be found in a man’s noir, as in Double Indemnity. A story in a woman’s noir is likely to be told from the perspective of a victim, as in Gaslight or RP. It isn’t Leslie’s fault that her career is advancing and Hayward’s has stalled. She sincerely wants him to be a successful playwright again. But he makes choices that undermine both his career and his marriage.

The second way she is in distress, which is presented throughout most of the movie, is because she can’t restore romance with her husband.

The third way is the most representative woman in distress situation in film noir — at the end of the film her husband tries to kill her.

An interesting problem occurs with Don’s noir element “sense of fatalism (spoken/visual).” He refers to fate on several occasions in his analysis of RP.

“The issue of fate is always in play and is a continuing subject of speculation between Leslie and Basehart.”

“Fate is demanding a fall guy.”

“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.”

“Fate wins out, but not quite in the way that seemed originally foreordained.”

What is the meaning of the word fate? According to Wikipedia:

“Modern usage defines fate as a power or agency that predetermines and orders the course of events. The definition of fate has it that events are ordered or ‘meant to be.’ Fate is used in regard to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out, and that same finality is projected into the future to become the inevitability of events as they will work themselves out.”

Comparing the definition to Don’s references to fate shows that he isn’t able to successfully integrate his noir element into his interpretation of RP. Take the last reference: “Fate wins out, but not quite in the way that seemed originally foreordained.” His observation contradicts the definition of fate. It suggests that come hell or high water “fate” will win out. Then what is fate? Just “whatever”? Such a use of the term renders “fate” irrelevant to RP.

And this irrelevance is something Don implies himself when he says, “The wish to undo the events that led to the shooting is an argument against fate….” But in RP it’s more than a “wish to undo the events” because the actual unfolding of the narrative results in a different ending. That is, the original events themselves are “undone,” which is much more than a mere “wish” to undo them.

Don is unsuccessful at integrating fate as a noir element in RP because RP succeeds in making the case against fate and, furthermore, this contributes to an argument against the relevance of fate as a “noir element” to be used to evaluate whether a movie is or isn’t a film noir.

But before turning to that issue, there is something important to add about fate in RP. The film begins and ends with words spoken about fate. At the start a male narrator (John Ireland) says in voice-over, “They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our years is planned ahead and nothing can change destiny. Is that true?”

Richard Basehart writes a poem dedicated to Joan Leslie about how to “flee from fate…run from destiny.” Later he tells her, “Destiny’s slipped a little. Maybe we can escape from her while she’s pulling herself up.”

Finally, as the police are taking him away for killing Hayward, Basehart says to Leslie, “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.”

RP uses “fate” as a narrative hook, and the question asked at the start of the movie (is it true that our lives are planned ahead?) is answered with No. RP shows that it is within our own power to determine what happens in our lives; our fate is not in the stars.

Leslie will not give up on Hayward and, since divorce isn’t in the cards, the only remaining plot option is to remove Hayward. One way is for her to kill him. But she doesn’t want to do that. So 1946 occurs once more, and then someone else kills her husband. (In this sense, Basehart takes the fall.)

The second time Leslie is not only free from Mr. Wrong (as she was the first time) but now she can have a new and successful romance because: a) there’s no taint of her involvement with Hayward’s death, and b) Tom Conway is there, holding her, and he is Mr. Right. To top it off, Conway’s character is John Friday and, according to Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, “Friday” is derived from the goddess of marriage and means “love day.”

Basehart speaks the final words in the movie. He is standing on the sidewalk in front of Leslie’s building. (When he leaves her apartment with the police, Leslie and Conway are embracing.) He says, “Happy New Year, Sheila.” This recalls what Conway says to Leslie earlier in the movie, while he’s holding her hands, “Happy New Year. It could be, you know.” He means it could be happy for the two of them if she would give her love to him.

RP presents a crisis in marriage (a woman begins with Mr. Wrong) and resolves the crisis (she finishes with Mr. Right). That is par for the course in a woman in distress film noir. But the flashback isn’t the only atypical feature of the movie. After Gaslight, film noirs with a woman in distress usually have the following story: a good woman marries Mr. Wrong (usually after a very brief acquaintanceship); she becomes a housewife; the marriage is no good from the start because her husband doesn’t love her; she gets to know another man platonically (who’s Mr. Right); her husband plots against her (such as for her wealth); her husband tries to kill her; she’s rescued by Mr. Right; she and Mr. Right become a romantic couple; and she remains a housewife.

RP is quite different, almost unique, even though it isn’t an early woman in distress movie by any means. That is, the standard story I described continues to be used in many film noirs in later years. The “formula” is not exhausted by 1947.

Joan Leslie and Louis Hayward are very much in love when they marry and for some time thereafter. He has no designs on her (for example, to live off her earnings from her Broadway stardom). On the contrary, it is her successful career that is the root of his resentment toward her. He tries to kill her, but Mr. Right doesn’t rescue her, because Conway shows up just after Basehart has shot Hayward.

At the end of the movie there is no evidence Conway wants Leslie to give up the stage and get into the kitchen. He supports a very different option than Mr. Right does in other woman in distress film noirs: Leslie should keep working. He has a very different attitude toward her than Hayward does; Conway appreciates Leslie’s career.

Although it is commonplace to include fate in the description/definition of film noir, I think it is just another example of privileging male/hardboiled stories. It is another tenet in the hardboiled paradigm that should be challenged.

Furthermore, seeing fate in a film noir seems to be limited to those film noirs with a flashback, a voice-over and a guilty man. When these three of Don’s noir elements are together (“use of flashbacks,” “a spoken narrative” and “sense of fatalism”), the result is hardboiled male film noirs, such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Criss Cross (1948).

Without a flashback, I doubt a film noir can still have a “sense of fatalism.” What justifies the notion of fate is a return to the past from the present to show the events that establish the present. The flashback is the device. Without recounting the past – with a story that just starts and goes forward to the end – how is “a sense of fatalism” created? (For a supporting view by David Bordwell in Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Hollywood Storytelling, see below Addendum II: The Flashback and Fate.)

Although an argument can be made that fate can be associated with a story in some film noirs, I don’t think fate can be a defining “noir element” because it isn’t integral or relevant in far too many different kinds of film noirs. For example, it isn’t relevant in film noirs with a guilty male criminal when there’s no flashback; in the film noirs during WWII when the male protagonist is innocent; in detective noirs; in most women’s noirs (such as the woman in distress); in postwar police procedurals, even though they often tell a story that’s already happened (via a flashback).

What makes “story told from the perspective of the criminals” a defining noir element? It may be appropriate in film noirs with post-war guilty male criminals, but it isn’t appropriate with an innocent hunted man, detective noirs, women’s noirs, police procedurals, and so on.

What makes “a spoken narrative” a defining noir element? Is “a spoken narrative” a strong indicator of film noir when it’s the voice of law enforcement? What about T-Men (1948), in which we hear that voice from the beginning right up to the celebration of America at the very end?

Stripped of its association with the notion of fate in a film noir, what makes the flashback a defining noir element?

The way to contradict my questioning the appropriateness of Don’s noir elements is to purge other kinds of film noirs I have mentioned so that those that remain are appropriate. However, the very opposite of a purge is taking place in more recent film noir reference books with extensive filmographies. They are building on the filmographies in the first wave of reference books by including more film noirs from the classic period (1940-1959).

Therefore, these larger filmographies are making it more difficult to use Don’s restricted range of noir elements to properly assess more and more film noirs. Repeat Performance is good example. In the first wave, through the mid-1980s, RP was not included in the following reference books.

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, editors, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (The Overlook Press, first edition, 1979, third edition, 1992)

Robert Ottoson, A Reference Guide to the American Film Noir, 1940-1958 (The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1981)

Spencer Selby, Dark City: The Film Noir (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1984)

1995: Michael L. Stephens, Film Noir: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference to Movies, Terms and Persons (McFarland & Company, Inc.)

However, RP has been included in four more recently published reference books. Furthermore, it should be noted that, although Spencer Selby and Andrew Spicer didn’t cite RP is their first published lists of American film noirs, Dark City: The Film Noir (McFarland, 1984) and Film Noir (Pearson Education Limited, 2002), respectively, it is now cited in their most recent and comprehensive lists.

Paul Duncan, Film Noir (Pocket Essentials, revised edition, 2003)

Michael F. Keaney, Film Noir Guide: 745 Films of the Classic Era, 1940-1959 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003)

Andrew Spicer, Historical Dictionary of Film Noir (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010)

Spencer Selby, The Worldwide Film Noir Tradition (Sink Press, 2013)

Film noir plots and characters vary a great deal more than the description/definition represented by the hardboiled paradigm.

Don has done an important service by presenting his set of “the” noir elements. He has made it worthwhile to reconsider what, if any, fixed set of noir elements can be identified, much less justified.

The obvious question that I am raising is, “How can it be valid for fans and authors to describe/define film noir by a relatively narrow range of elements, given that so many film noirs cited in multiple reference books do not conform to those elements?”

For too many years film noir has been represented by the hardboiled paradigm. However, when enough challenges prove that the hardboiled paradigm is based on too many fallacies, then new ways to understand film noir will be acknowledged. I look forward to that happening.

Addendum I: Adultery Unpunished and Divorce Displaced

Another way that Repeat Performance is distinct from other Hollywood films of its time (and not only film noirs) is in its treatment of Field and Hayward’s extra-marital affair. Field initiates the affair by signaling to Hayward she is ready for sex with him. When she wants to end it, she makes it clear to him that she is through with him. For example, when he insists that he wants to sail with her to London, she tells him that she will have him escorted off the ship. Only then does he give up and leave her.

Field isn’t punished for adultery, such as by getting brutally injured or being killed. Instead, these things happen to Hayward. So it might be said that RP is about the consequences of infidelity. But that interpretation rings false. For example, Natalie Shafer is a serial adulterer. In other words, we have to assume she gets sex from various men in return for paying large sums of money to publicize what they do as artists, such as publishing Basehart’s poetry or sponsoring a concert tour for the pianist who replaces Basehart after she sends Basehart to an asylum. She also suggests there have been less expensive occasions when she has satisfied her lust for men much younger than her elderly husband: “We shouldn’t bring plays to this town anyway. I never did like New Haven…except for those Yale boys. (Giggle) They’re nice.”

But if RP doesn’t show adultery is wrong (i.e., an unfaithful spouse will be punished), what does it show? The evidence in the film is that, although a marriage may begin all rosy, it can turn into a nest of thorns. And when it does, the best thing to do is to call it quits. RP doesn’t make a case in favor of divorce; instead it uses a crime story in which murder displaces divorce as the solution for a failed marriage.

Despite everything Leslie tries to do to save her marriage, nothing works. For example, at the beginning of the film when she wishes the year could be re-lived, she says if she and Hayward hadn’t gone to London, he wouldn’t have met Field. She believes that if she can re-live 1946, she won’t go to London and, therefore, she will preserve her marriage. Leslie gets her wish, but the second time around Hayward meets Field even sooner – in New York on New Year’s Eve. In other words, the film intends to show that there is nothing Leslie can do to keep Hayward. The principal concern in RP isn’t about Leslie’s fate, but rather Leslie’s marriage. If she can’t learn the first time in her life that her husband doesn’t want her anymore, then through a similar year-long experience of his rejection of her, she acknowledges that she has ot get on with her life. This means that she should be willing to fall in love with someone new, namely Conway.

Leslie and Hayward may have had a marvelous marriage for a while (i.e., during WWII), but people change. RP is about strains that can arise in a marriage, which ultimately become irresolvable. Befitting the postwar years, the discord comes from a woman having a career that is not only successful, but also one that she wishes to keep. Unlike the approach taken in many other Hollywood movies in that era, RP doesn’t show a woman who suffers because she chooses to pursue her career or who is willing to give up her career as soon as Mr. Right comes along. On the contrary, RP is in favor of her decision.

Leslie and Hayward’s marriage falls apart for two reasons. First, he resents her, and second, he rejects her for Field. The key fact of the film is that Hayward has given up Leslie for good. For example, assume Hayward’s confinement to a wheelchair symbolizes a weakening of his manhood. (Perhaps his impotence is the reason why Field wants to end her relationship with him). In any event, it is to be with Field – not Leslie – that motivates Hayward to try to walk again. When Field visits Hayward at his and Leslie’s apartment, he tries to get out of his wheelchair and walk. Although he doesn’t succeed at that time, later he is able to leave the wheelchair and walk, with a cane, to the ship that Field is going to take to London. He assures her that soon he won’t need the cane. Nonetheless, she forces him to leave the ship. Her rejection leads to his attack on Leslie at their apartment. Because Field – not Leslie – is the woman Hayward desires, Field – not Leslie – is the woman for whom his manhood is restored.

Another woman’s film noir of 1947, The Unfaithful, begins with a narrator intoning, “The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one city, town or country but is of our times.” The “problem” is divorce. In The Unfaithful a marriage is tested and saved. Similar to RP, the test is framed in terms of a murder story. Also similar to RP, the transgressor is the wife. Ann Sheridan kills the man with whom she had an affair while her husband, Zachary Scott, was overseas during WWII. Typically of melodrama and film noir, the woman bears the burden for a marriage crisis. That is, it isn’t Scott who had an affair, such as while he was in the armed forces. (For my analysis of this film, see the page The Unfaithful.)

Unlike The Unfaithful, the marriage in Repeat Performance can’t be saved. When Leslie and Hayward first meet and fall in love, their romance occurs just like the title of Hayward’s hit play, which launches Leslie’s career, Out of the Blue. Years later, she can’t acknowledge that her marriage is finished and that she should act on the title of Field’s play, in which she now stars, and Say Goodbye to Hayward. Since she won’t leave her husband on her own, the plot sets her free of him through the fantastic contrivance of his murder.

Because real-life women and men in dead-end marriages can’t have the same good fortune as Leslie, the lesson of the film is that there is nothing to be gained by refusing to recognize that to live “happily ever after” may mean going separate ways. Repeat Performance is anything but superficial in its message, and it is anything but marginal as a film noir.

Addendum II: The Flashback and Fate

In Chapter 2, “Time and Time Again,” in David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling (The University of Chicago Press, 2017), he provides a thorough examination of flashbacks in Hollywood films, especially the 1940s. As I do above, Bordwell associates the flashback as a narrative device to show that an outcome is fated.

“‘I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman,’ admits the insurance salesman Walter Neff at the start of Double Indemnity (1943 [sic]). The flashbacks he narrates into a tape recorder create what might be called inevitability suspense: we will learn how Neff’s fate unfolded. Unlike the similar James M. Cain adaptation, Money and the Woman (1940), which is told chronologically, Double Indemnity uses the flashback to create the sort of ‘doom’ plot associated with Cain’s novels and film noir generally…Flashbacks in other types of films are likely to prepare us for destiny from the beginning…

“Flashbacks trade on what cognitive scientists call hindsight bias. Once we know the outcome, we tend to think that it was obvious before the fact…

“For example, a story told linearly might include a whopping coincidence. But begin your plot after the coincidence and flash back to it, and it will seem plausible, even inevitable, because it has ‘already’ had consequences in the present. At the start of The Strawberry Blonde, we know that Biff did not marry the girl he yearns for. As a result, his accidental date with Amy seems inevitable; we know that she will become his wife.” (86-86)

In Chapter 10, “I Love a Mystery,” Bordwell again uses Double Indemnity to underscore the connection between fate/inevitabilility and the flashback.

“Put aside virtuous and accidental killers. There remain thoroughly bad guys, and in the 1940s a few films make them the protagonists. The most influential exercise was Double Indemnity (1944), which introduced the possibility of focusing on the murderer’s plot and its unfolding. It was hailed as a triumph of suspense, but of what sort?

“There are moments of impending menace in [Patricia] Highsmith’s sense [that suspense entails ‘a threat of impending violent action’ (384)], as the investigation closes in on Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson. And we may fear their getting caught, whatever moral qualms we have about their behavior. Yet I think the primary sort of suspense at work depends on inevitability. Cain was famous for his ‘doom’ novels, and this quality is supplied by the flashback structure and Neff’s confession.” (391)