Holiday Classics: “Repeat Performance” (1947)

Have you ever reached the end of the year and wished you could go back and do it all over again? That wish is granted to Joan Leslie’s Sheila Page in “Repeat Performance,” a 1947 film noir with a unique supernatural bent that might best be described as “It’s a Wonderful Life” meets “The Twilight Zone.” The film opens with a cryptic Rod Serling-esque voiceover to set the scene, followed by a murder, the camera flying through a window and into a room just as shots ring out. Sheila, a Broadway star, has shot and killed her producer husband Barney (Louis Hayward); she stands over his body, gun in hand and a look of shock plastered across her face. It’s just before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve 1946, and afterwards Sheila wanders into a party, dazed. After confiding in her friend, poet William Williams (Richard Basehart, in his screen debut, and what a character name), Sheila makes a wish as 1947 is being rung in that she could live the year over again. And she gets that wish; before she knows it, it’s the start of 1946, not 1947, and Sheila, knowing everything that happened before that led her marriage to crumble and to her killing Barney, is determined to prevent the same thing from occurring all over again.

Joan Leslie in “Repeat Performance”

“Repeat Performance” was produced by the British-American B-movie studio Eagle-Lion Films, who elevated director Alfred L. Werker’s adaptation of William O’Farrell’s novel to A status after signing former Warner Brother’s star Leslie so it could be used as a showcase for her. Leslie had long been unhappy with the roles Warner’s picked for her (her most famous parts at the studio include playing James Cagney’s leading lady in the 1942 musical biopic “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and the nice girl who spurns gangster Humphrey Bogart’s affections in the 1941 crime drama “High Sierra”), but her first outing with Eagle-Lion wasn’t met with a much more promising reception. “Repeat Performance” was a critical and commercial flop on its release.

And it’s too bad, because it’s a fascinating, if flawed, movie. Werker’s direction is surprisingly artful for a poverty row studio. Leslie’s fresh-faced sincerity lends itself well to her character, even if “noir leading lady” seems like a strange fit for her. We genuinely believe her distress in the film’s opening scenes, and her drive to make things right. Of course, what is meant to be will be, and Hayward plays the cad (Barney is violent, a philanderer, and an alcoholic) to the hilt, leaving the audience in little doubt that Sheila’s actions were justified. Virginia Field plays the playwright who catches Barney’s wandering eye, and the future Mrs. Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer, makes a delightful appearance as a socialite years before she was stranded on “Gilligan’s Island.”

Louis Hayward, Joan Leslie, and Richard Basehart in “Repeat Performance”

“Repeat Performance” is a wonderful watch this time of year because it encompasses the entire holiday season. A crucial turning point in Barney and Sheila’s relationship occurs at a Thanksgiving banquet gone wrong. Festive scenes of Christmastime and tree decorating dominate the second half, and of course the film’s whole conceit turns on New Year’s Eve. “Repeat Performance” was difficult to track down for decades, all but forgotten by most and merely a memory for others, although it was remade in 1989 as a TV movie titled “Turn Back the Clock,” in which Leslie made a brief appearance. Recently, a badly decomposed print was rescued and restored by groups including the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA, and at the beginning of 2022, Flicker Alley released a beautiful blu-ray set of the restored print with tons of special features, granting a film that ought to be a better known classic greater visibility and a chance at its own repeat performance.

Runtime: 91 minutes.

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