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.
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.
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.
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.
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.