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Tag Archives: L. William O’Connell

Repeat Performance (May 22, 1947)

The stars look down on New Year’s Eve in New York. They say that fate is in the stars, that each of our years is planned ahead, and nothing can change destiny. Is that true? How many times have you said, “I wish I could live this year over again”? This is the story of a woman who did relive one year of her life. It’s almost midnight, and that’s where our story begins.

A shot rings out. Beautiful stage actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) has just killed her alcoholic, cheating husband Barney Page (Louis Hayward) in self-defense. Distraught, she flees and finds herself in the midst of New Year’s Eve revelers. She wades through the crowd and finds her friend, the troubled poet William Williams (Richard Basehart).

She tells him what happened. “Should I call the police?” she asks.

“Oh heavens no,” he says. “They’d only arrest you for murder. They’ve got such one-track minds.”

Instead, William suggests that she see the influential and wise theatrical agent John Friday (Tom Conway) and ask his advice. On the way, she wishes that she could somehow live the past year all over again, and never go to London, where her husband Barney met the scheming adventuress Paula Costello (Virginia Field). Things would be different for William, too, who is fated to be committed to an insane asylum by a woman named Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer).

To Sheila’s surprise, William is no longer standing behind her when she arrives at John Friday’s flat, and she’s suddenly wearing a different evening dress. Furthermore, John insists that it’s only the first day of 1946, not the first day of 1947.

Once Sheila wraps her head around what has happened, she realizes what a rare gift she’s been given, and sets out to make things turn out right this time around.

But she quickly finds that events are conspiring to work themselves out the same way, no matter what she does. She doesn’t need to go to London with Barney to make Paula Costello a part of her life, because Paula knocks on the wrong door when she’s in Greenwich Village in New York, and winds up at Sheila and Barney’s party.

Sheila confides in her friend William, who doesn’t quite believe her cock-eyed story, but is sensitive and open-minded enough to listen to her when she tells him what she thinks will happen. “Barney will fall in love with that woman, William. He’ll go on drinking, become a hopeless alcoholic. He’ll grow to hate me. He’ll try to kill me. I’ve got to escape all that, William.”

Sheila vows that she won’t act in Paula’s play, Say Goodbye, which she did the first time she lived through 1946. She and Barney move to Los Angeles, where he stops drinking and gets back to work on his second play. For awhile, it seems as if Sheila will escape her fate, but then a package arrives. It’s a brilliant new play, Barney declares, but there’s no author’s name on it. “What’s the title?” asks Sheila in horror. “It’s called ‘Say Goodbye,'” Barney responds innocently.

Alfred Werker’s Repeat Performance is very much like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. The narrator, John Ireland, even sounds a little like Rod Serling. It’s a tricky, clever film with hints of metafiction, particularly in the scene in which Sheila says she doesn’t want to play an actress because audiences don’t like actresses as characters.

It’s a wonderful film that stands up to multiple viewings. It doesn’t need to be seen twice to be appreciated, but if you do watch it twice, you’ll catch many bits of dialogue that have a deeper layer of meaning once you know how everything will end.

Walter Bullock’s script, from a novel by William O’Farrell, is intelligent, and does an excellent job of balancing its science-fiction elements with its human drama. The acting is great, too, especially by Louis Hayward, who gives a weird and brilliant performance as Sheila’s unlikable but ultimately tragic husband Barney.

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Decoy (Sept. 14, 1946)

Jack Bernhard’s Decoy has built up quite a reputation in recent years. Considered a “lost” film for decades, it was written about in several books about film noir, and its perversity and violence were marveled over, as well as the coldness of its femme fatale.

When a print of the film was unearthed and shown as part of the Second Annual Festival of Film Noir in March 2000 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, the audience reportedly went wild.

Film critic Glenn Erickson (who also does a commentary track on the DVD) wrote that “as far as violence goes, Decoy was to 1946 what Pulp Fiction is to 1994.” I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly in terms of cultural impact, Quentin Tarantino’s films made a much larger splash in the ’90s than this picture did at the time of its release. And it’s hard to compare Tarantino’s films — which are incredibly self-aware, and which owe so much to every decade of film history that preceded them — to this unselfconscious programmer.

Decoy is based on a story by Stanley Rubin, who wrote it after he got out of the Air Corps in an attempt to make some money. He first sold it to radio, and then, with a few changes, to director Bernhard at Monogram Pictures. The screenplay is by Nedrick Young. It stars British actress Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby, surely one of the most heartless femme fatales in the history of noir. (Gillie was married to the director. They met in England, and they divorced shortly after the film was finished, and she only starred in one other film before she died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 33.)

When the film begins, we see Dr. L.L. “Lloyd” Craig (Herbert Rudley) staggering out of a gas station washroom in the early dawn hours. He hitches a ride into town, and heads for a particular room in a hotel. Once he’s inside, we hear shots. Police sergeant Joe “Jo Jo” Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) rushes down the corridor. The doctor is dead, there’s a wooden box with the lock shot off (MacGuffin alert!), and Margot is lying on the couch, wounded. When Jo Jo hands her the box, she laughs and weeps, and generally acts like a petulant child.

In classic noir fashion, she narrates her own story as she lies dying. Her boyfriend, gangster Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) was set to die in the gas chamber, which didn’t make Margot happy. Not because she was going to miss him after he was dead, but because only he knew where the $400,000 take from a robbery was hidden.

In a convoluted scheme, Margot seduces gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), who has already sunk $45,000 into an appeal for Olins that failed, and gets him to engineer the removal of Frankie’s body from the prison immediately after he dies in the gas chamber. She also seduces Dr. Craig, cajoling him away from his free clinic and his nurse (and possibly girlfriend), who is played by Marjorie Woodworth, whose acting is delightfully terrible.

Dr. Craig is also in charge of autopsies at the prison, so Margot has cooked up a plan in which Dr. Craig will administer methylene blue to Frankie to counteract the hydrocyanic acid he’ll receive in the gas chamber. (Large doses of methylene blue were actually used as an antidote to potassium cyanide poisoning as early as 1933, so kudos to Rubin for making his pseudoscience at least semi-believable.)

After he’s brought back to life, Frankie staggers around like Frankenstein’s monster, even lighting a match at one point and staring at it as though he’s never seen fire before. By the time he breaks down and says, “I’m alive,” it feels as if an hour has gone by.

While Margot not only seduces but murders nearly every man who crosses her path, I didn’t find any of it that shocking, mostly because the tone of the picture is so campy, and Gillie isn’t really a very good actress. The murder that gets talked about the most is the one she commits by running a man over with her car, but the effect of the scene may be softened in the DVD. In Arthur Lyons’s book Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, he writes that “she runs him over repeatedly,” but in the DVD version she only runs him over once. She puts the selector in drive, steps on the gas, guns the accelerator, and that’s it. Apparently there are two different cuts of Decoy, and people who saw the print at the Egyptian Theatre in 2000 got to see the more brutal version of this murder, but most at-home viewers are going to feel that it’s rather ho-hum, as far as brutal murder scenes go.*

Movies like this all get lumped into a big pile now labeled “film noir,” which is a good designation, and one that’s stood the test of time. It was first used by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was completely unknown in Hollywood when “film noirs” were actually being made. Movies like Decoy were called “melodramas” (or sometimes “thrillers” or “suspense” movies) and melodrama is actually a better term to describe this movie than noir, which implies a grander style than Decoy exhibits. The sets are bare bones, the plot is ridiculous, and the acting is campy. There are plenty of night scenes and a few shadows lurking around corners, but in general, the lighting is more utilitarian than chiaroscuro.

This is not to say that Decoy isn’t a lot of fun. It is. And the plotting is clever, especially the “gotcha” ending. But it’s far from a masterpiece, and it’s too silly to be taken very seriously.

*Although both Erickson and Lyons make the claim that Margot runs her victim over with her car “repeatedly,” I’m not 100% convinced that there are two different prints of this film in circulation. The power of suggestion in horrific or violent scenes is a powerful thing, and it can trick the audience, especially after a single viewing of a film. There are critics who swore up and down that they saw the knife slashing Janet Leigh’s skin in Psycho (1960), even though it never actually does, and several critics have memories of seeing a horrific demon baby at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), even though the baby is never shown.