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Dial 1119 (Nov. 3, 1950)

Dial 1119
Dial 1119 (1950)
Directed by Gerald Mayer
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Dial 1119 is an exceedingly well-made B-movie. It’s suspenseful, well-acted, and holds up extremely well. You don’t have to be a fan of film noirs or “old movies” to enjoy this one. As long as you can tolerate watching movies shot in black & white, Dial 1119 will keep you on the edge of your seat for its brief running time of 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Dial 1119 takes place in the fictional burg of “Terminal City,” where an insane young man named Gunther Wyckoff (Marshall Thompson) has come in search of his psychiatrist, Dr. John D. Faron (Sam Levene). The title refers to the police, fire, and ambulance emergency number that exists in the world of the film. (Although a nationwide emergency phone number was proposed in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that 9-1-1 became the standard in North America.)

Wyckoff is a convicted murderer who has escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane. Dr. Faron’s testimony kept Wyckoff from going to the electric chair, but the young man is clearly deeply disturbed. He is obsessed with war, death, and murder, and is a deadly threat to anyone who crosses his path.

After stealing a pistol and killing a bus driver, Wyckoff goes in search of Dr. Faron. When he finds his office closed for the night, he crosses the street to the Oasis Bar, where he holes up and takes hostages.

Levene and Thompson

It’s surprising how current many aspects of Dial 1119 feel — like hostages watching their own predicament on TV. All the chime-in Charlies blathering into a reporter’s microphone about what they’d do if they were in the same situation will feel eerily familiar to anyone who’s read comments on an article on the internet.

Also, if you’re used to television sets in movies from the 1950s with screens that are the size of a postage stamp, brace yourself for the biggest TV screen you will see in a movie from 1950. The bartender at the Oasis, Chuckles (William Conrad), has a TV that’s so large and flat that it almost looks like a modern hi-def set. He mentions at one point in the film that he paid $1,400 for the television set, and then complains that for all the money he paid it still only shows crummy westerns and professional wrestling. Replace “westerns” with “reality shows” and this movie could take place in 2016.

Marshall Thompson

One of the things I especially loved about Dial 1119 was how much of the story is told without dialogue or music. We watch the actors’ nervous eyes and sweating faces, and we know exactly what they’re thinking. The score by André Previn is great, but it’s used very sparingly, and never tells the audience how to feel. The actors’ performances and Gerald Mayer’s deft direction tell us everything we need to know.

Dial 1119 has a low budget and was obviously shot as a second feature, but M-G-M productions were always glossy, nicely lensed affairs, even when they were “B” flicks.

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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.