The paragraphs below are taken from my post about REPEAT PERFORMANCE on my website. Because there are spoilers, you may want to read it after you see this marvelous film noir.
Cast: Louis Hayward (Barney Page), Joan Leslie (Sheila Page), Virginia Field (Paula Costello), Tom Conway (John Friday), Richard Basehart (William Williams), Natalie Schafer (Bess Michaels).
One way that Repeat Performance is distinct from other Hollywood films of its time (and not only film noirs) is in its treatment of Paula and Barney’s extra-marital affair. Paula initiates the affair by signaling to Barney she is ready for sex with him. When she wants to end it, she makes it clear to him that she is through with him. For example, when he insists that he wants to sail with her to London, she tells him that she will have him escorted off the ship. Only then does he give up and leave her.
Paula isn’t punished for adultery, such as by getting brutally injured or being killed. Instead, these things happen to Barney. So it might be said that RP is about the consequences of infidelity. But that interpretation rings false. For example, another married woman, Bess, is a serial adulterer. In other words, we have to assume she gets sex from various men in return for paying large sums of money to publicize what they do as artists, such as publishing William’s poetry or sponsoring a concert tour for the pianist who replaces William after she sends William to an asylum. She also suggests there have been less expensive occasions when she has satisfied her lust for men much younger than her elderly husband: “We shouldn’t bring plays to this town anyway. I never did like New Haven…except for those Yale boys. (Giggle) They’re nice.”
But if RP doesn’t show adultery is wrong (i.e., an unfaithful spouse will be punished), what does it show? The evidence in the film is that, although a marriage may begin all rosy, it can turn into a nest of thorns. And when it does, the best thing to do is to call it quits. RP doesn’t make a case in favor of divorce; instead it uses a crime story in which murder displaces divorce as the solution for a failed marriage.
Despite everything Sheila tries to do to save her marriage, nothing works. For example, at the beginning of the film when she wishes the year could be re-lived, she says if she and Barney hadn’t gone to London, he wouldn’t have met Paula. She believes that if she can re-live 1946, she won’t go to London and, therefore, she will preserve her marriage. Sheila gets her wish, but the second time around Barney meets Paula even sooner – in New York on New Year’s Eve. In other words, the film intends to show that there is nothing Sheila can do to keep Barney. The principal concern in RP isn’t about Sheila’s fate but rather her marriage. If she can’t learn the first time in her life that her husband doesn’t want her anymore, then through a similar year-long experience of his rejection of her, she acknowledges that she has to get on with her life. This means that she should be willing to fall in love with someone new, namely John.
Sheila and Barney may have had a marvelous marriage for a while (i.e., during WWII), but people change. RP is about strains that can arise in a marriage, which ultimately become irresolvable. Befitting the postwar years, the discord comes from a woman having a career that is not only successful, but also one that she wishes to keep. Unlike the approach taken in many other Hollywood movies in that era, RP doesn’t show a woman who suffers because she chooses to pursue her career or who is willing to give up her career as soon as Mr. Right comes along. On the contrary, RP is in favor of her decision.
Sheila and Barney’s marriage falls apart for two reasons. First, he resents her, and second, he rejects her for Paula. The key fact of the film is that Barney has given up Sheila for good. For example, assume Barney’s confinement to a wheelchair symbolizes a weakening of his manhood. (Perhaps his impotence is the reason why Paula wants to end her relationship with him). In any event, it is to be with Paula – not Sheila – that motivates Barney to try to walk again. When Paula visits Barney at his and Sheila’s apartment, he tries to get out of his wheelchair and walk. Although he doesn’t succeed at that time, later he is able to leave the wheelchair and walk, with a cane, to the ship that Paula is going to take to London. He assures her that soon he won’t need the cane. Nonetheless, she forces him to leave the ship. Her rejection leads to his attack on Sheila at their apartment. Because Paula – not Sheila – is the woman Barney desires, Paula – not Sheila – is the woman for whom his manhood is restored.
Another woman’s film noir of 1947, The Unfaithful, begins with a narrator intoning, “The problem with which it deals belongs not to any one city, town or country but is of our times.” The “problem” is divorce. In The Unfaithful a marriage is tested and saved. Similar to RP, the test is framed in terms of a murder story. Also similar to RP, the transgressor is the wife. Chris Hunter (Ann Sheridan) kills the man with whom she had an affair while her husband, Bob (Zachary Scott), was overseas during WWII. Typically of melodrama and film noir, the woman bears the burden for a marriage crisis. That is, it isn’t Bob who had an affair, such as while he was in the armed forces.
Unlike The Unfaithful, the marriage in Repeat Performance can’t be saved. When Sheila and Barney first meet and fall in love, their romance occurs just like the title of Barney’s hit play, which launches Leslie’s career, Out of the Blue. Years later, she can’t acknowledge that her marriage is finished and that she should act on the title of Paula’s play, in which she now stars, and Say Goodbye to Barney. Since she won’t leave her husband on her own, the plot sets her free of him through the fantastic contrivance of his murder.
Because real-life women and men in dead-end marriages can’t have the same good fortune as Sheila, the lesson of the film is that there is nothing to be gained by refusing to recognize that to live “happily ever after” may mean going separate ways. Repeat Performance is anything but superficial in its message, and it is anything but marginal as a film noir.