Film noir and The Twilight Zone have more in common than you'd probably think. Here is some of the connective tissue:
--B-movie actors from the 40s peppered the casts of its episodes almost 20 years later.
--Dutch angles magnify tension; many other lighting details and the impressive black and white photography (at least before the show started to shoot on video late in the series) can easily be mistaken for a classic noir.
--Watch the credits at the end of a TZ episode and you'll see many names often associated with film noir: Harry J. Wild, Joseph LaShelle, John Brahm, Robert Florey (to name just a few).
Of course the fantasy/sci-fi element of The Twilight Zone are not usually found in noirs. The exceptions: Val Lewton's RKO horror films...and the New Years' Eve thriller Repeat Performance.
The film was released in 1947 by Eagle-Lion, who at the time was trying to establish itself as a major force in Hollywood. They put out a series of what are often called “nervous As”--films not cheap enough to be Bs but not expensive enough to be As...films that hoped to find a seam in public response that might produce "A-level" revenue.
Repeat Performance fits that description. Its somewhat clunky and far-too-dramatic opening credits lead to a classic noir opening setup; what follows is a cheapish-looking movie filled with former stars (Louis Hayward) and actors just starting out (Richard Basehart in his first film role).
Taken as a whole, the film may be a bit too full of soapy dramatics to be a top-shelf noir, but it certainly could be served to noir fans without complaint. The dark and stylish opening of the film is matched by a solid, evocatively ironic ending; together they make up for the frothy middle, and ultimately makes the film into an unusual but worthy entry in film noir's classic period.
Despite its flaws, its New Year's Eve hook and the outrageous but effective "relive the previous year" gimmick give the film a unique kind of escapist energy.
Here's the set-up: just before midnight on New Year's Eve, 1946, Broadway actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) shoots her husband Barney (Hayward) and then rushes to see her friend, oddball poet William Williams. After a distressed Sheila confesses her deed to William (Basehart), he suggests they talk to Sheila's producer John Friday (Tom Conway). As Sheila and William are walking up to John's apartment, Sheila wishes that she could relive the past year, insisting that if she had it to do over, she would not make the same mistakes twice. Upon reaching John's door, Sheila notices that William has disappeared and then gradually realizes that something more than odd has happened...
An unnecessary voice over explains what is obvious to the viewer. Her hair and clothes have changed and she's been transported to an earlier time--exactly a year before. She has one year to make up for the mistakes she made leading up to her crime. The voice-over is a common element found in film noir. But in this case it sounds much more like the Rod Sterling TZ introductions than a typical film noir Mitchum-esque V.O.
The film is based on a book by William O'Farrell. O'Farrell doesn't seem to have many other books after this, his first. Published in 1942, the book is something. Over at the Mystery File, Dan Stumpf writes,
O’Farrell can write. He can put across a bitchy theatrical milieu and a seedy flophouse with equal aplomb, evoke a desperate chase and a disparate seduction with commensurate suspense, and weave a tale of murder and melodrama (verging on soap opera at times, but teetering skillfully on the edge) with prose that keeps the pages turning very nicely.
There are many changes from the book (which is wonderfully bleak). In O'Farrell's original, Barney is the actor that goes back in time, not Sheila. Barney begins the novel as a flop-house drunk after shooting his girlfriend following the suicide of his wife Sheila. When on the run, Barney and William and Mary (a gay man in the book that Basehart cannily hints at in the movie) get shot at by the cops leading to the magical happenings. (This scene is so cinematic that I'm surprised they didn't find a way to shoe-horn it into the film.) And although it is soapy, O'Farrell's novel concludes in a way that's more satisfactory than most thrillers. It's a good read (if you can find it).
O'Farrell's book was his only one to gain any attention. His movie and TV credits are slim as well (he did write an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Kind Waitress," which features a fine performance from noir stalwart Olive Deering). Repeat Performance was remade into a 1980s TV movie, Turn Back the Clock, which featured Joan Leslie in a small part.
Notable faces who wander through the haunted tableau of the 1947 film include Louis Hayward. His career wasn't what it was just a few years before--a case of PTSD from his service in WWII was largely responsible for that--but he did make some interesting choices when he recovered and attempt to regain his career momentum. He was best friends with Edgar G. Ulmer and appeared in Ulmer's Citizen-Kane-of-B-noir Ruthless in 1948. Always intrigued by villains, he signed on to play a scoundrel in Fritz Lang's House By the River before transitioning to television (alas, no Twilight Zone episodes for him).
Tom Conway is a favorite, and he's perfectly suited for the role of a suave, eloquent producer. Virginia Field is appropriately haughty. As noted, Richard Basehart captures the book's “William and Mary” nuance without being obvious about it, in what is probably the film's canniest performance. Basehart would soon become a fixture in film noir, with a string of impressive credits: He Walked by Night, Reign of Terror, Tension, Outside the Wall, Fourteen Hours, The House on Telegraph Hill, and the Brit-noir The Good Die Young.
Joan Leslie--so good as an ingenue in High Sierra and almost as impressive in The Hard Way--isn't as strong as her Repeat Performance co-stars but she gets the job done. It's not an easy task to carry a film of this type when you consider how outrageous the story gets.
Submitted for your consideration: a spooky story of fate and the illusory nature of second chances. Repeated viewing encouraged...in the Twilight Zone.