Thursday, December 29, 2022

Repeat Performance (1947)

Repeat Performance is a 1947 Hollywood adaptation of William O’Farrell’s quirky 1942 novel of the same name, which as it happens I read just recently. It’s an extremely interesting book but when I read it I remember thinking that there were so many ways in which Hollywood could make an unholy mess of a film adaptation.

It turns out my fears were well grounded. They really did make a mess of it. Everything that made the book so intriguing is lacking in the movie.

The basic idea is exactly the same in both book and movie. In the book a man’s life has ended in disaster and he’s facing a murder charge. But, by means which are never explicitly explained, he gets the chance to live the previous year all over again. He gets the chance to avoid the mistakes which led him to disaster. For some wholly unexplained reason the decision was made to make the protagonist of the movie rather than a man. Which in itself is no problem.

The movie opens with Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) shooting her husband Barney (Louis Hayward). Sheila is in a mess but she is given a chance to escape from the mess. By some mysterious means she is transported back in time for one year. She knows what it was that led to that shooting so it should be easy to make sure that this time it doesn’t happen. This time she will do things differently.

Sheila is a very successful actress and a major star on Broadway. Barney was at one time a successful playwright. Now he’s a self-pitying drunk.

Since Sheila is living the past year of her life all over again she knows what is going to happen. Barney will meet English playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field). He will have an affair. That affair will lead to catastrophe. All Sheila has to do is to keep Barney and Paula apart.

That turns out to be less easy than it sounds. Sheila does do things differently, but somehow Barney and Paula meet anyway. And sure enough Barney and Paula start drifting into an affair. Sheila knows that she has to find a way to put a stop to this affair but she has no idea how to do it.

What makes the book interesting is that the protagonist isn’t entirely a bad guy but he’s very far from perfect. He’s human. He has plenty of human weaknesses. He finds it difficult to avoid temptations. He is impulsive and selfish. The question is, what is it that leads him to ruin? Is it just sheer bad luck? Is it fate? Is it poor judgment? Self-indulgence? Or is it his own personality flaws? We neither entirely despise him nor admire him but he’s human enough that we do care what happens to him. He’s a classic noir protagonist.

Unfortunately the decision was made to make the protagonist of the movie, Sheila, squeaky clean. She’s a regular Little Miss Goody Two Shoes. Which makes her totally uninteresting and makes it difficult to care about her fate. It also means that she doesn’t have the chance, reliving that fateful year, to learn anything about herself, to understand why she made bad decisions. Sheila in the movie is such a good girl that she never does anything wrong. It’s a fatal weakness in the movie. The movie entirely misses the point of the book, and as a result the movie ends up drifting aimlessly.

All the subtlety and cleverness and irony and ambiguity that was in the novel is missing from the movie. It’s been sanitised and dumbed down and made bland and innocuous. The feeling of impending doom in the novel, as the protagonist tries to avoid making the same mistakes and makes new ones instead, is gone. And the movie just doesn’t make any worthwhile use of its promising central idea.

It’s hard to judge Joan Leslie’s performance since Sheila is such a nothing character. Louis Hayward overacts but there’s not much he can do to distract us from the fact that Barney is a more simplistic character than any of the characters in the book.

Richard Basehart as Sheila’s poet friend William fares much better than the other cast members. Tom Conway gives his standard performance as theatrical producer John Friday, another character who has been made less interesting than his counterpart in the novel.

While the book is definitely noir fiction, the movie is not by any stretch of the imagination a film noir. The decision to make Sheila into Little Miss Perfect effectively removes all the noirness from the story.

The script apparently went through many changes and as so often happens in such cases the focus was lost. What we’re left with is a routine crime/romantic melodrama with a clumsy gimmick. As a crime/romantic melodrama Repeat Performance is not a truly bad movie, it’s just very disappointing. It’s a story with so much potential, which makes the disappointment all the more bitter.

Repeat Performance is a moderately entertaining movie that could have been something special. Recommended, with reservations.

I've reviewed William O’Farrell’s novel on Vintage Pop Fictions.


  1. Interesting review. I have this movie in my to be watched queue, though I've no idea when I'll actually get around to it.
    I tend to avoid watching movie adaptation right after I've read the books they are based on as there are generally wholesale changes - something which I think is inevitable when moving to a different medium, so the practice in itself doesn't trouble me to much - and the fact these will be fresh in my mind tends to color my response. To be honest, I can't see myself reading the book as my to be read pile is even more daunting than the viewing version! I wonder if I might have a more favorable reaction coming to the movie without any comparisons influencing me.

    1. I tend to avoid watching movie adaptation right after I've read the books they are based on

      That's a lesson I've finally learnt. In future I'm going to try to watch movies and their source novels at least a year apart.

      I wonder if I might have a more favorable reaction coming to the movie without any comparisons influencing me.

      I think it's highly probable. Everybody else who has seen this movie seems to have liked it.