Repeat Performance (1947)

This movie should be much better known.

Repeat Performance is a holiday fantasy/noir from 1947 about a woman who just killed her husband in self-defense at midnight on New Year's, wishes to relive the past year to change her destiny, and finds her wish is granted by the magic of the season only to learn that while the paths of fate can be traversed differently, the destination will always be the same. I don't feel too bad spoiling this, because the movie kicks off with Twilight Zone-esque narration that more or less spells all this out.

So, this is basically a post-war fatalism entry for the holidays. Again, why in hell am I only just hearing about this now?!!!

Okay, I can probably shed a little light on that now. First, if you're not thinking about the thematic and historical significance the holidays lend the movie, it's easy to gloss over them, as well as how much of the movie is actually set during the season. Second, the movie has some pacing issues: it drags a bit in the middle and could probably be condensed into a lean sixty or even thirty-minute TV episode - notably The Twilight Zone and similar shows debuted a decade or so later offering just that sort of experience. I still really like this one and am absolutely recommending it, but I have to acknowledge it's a long way from perfect. In breezy, warmhearted holiday films from this era that's rarely a dealbreaker, but it's not too surprising something this dark and bleak has a steeper hill to climb in being recognized as a seasonal cross-genre classic alongside, say, It's a Wonderful Life. Here's hoping it starts getting the recognition it deserves now that the constraints around what qualifies as holiday entertainment are starting to be loosened.

Before we dive into the synopsis, I want to reiterate this is something I recommend watching. If you'd rather do so without knowing the story, here's where you should opt out.

We start with narration and two gunshots coming from inside a New York apartment. The camera zooms in to show us the main character, Shelia (played by Joan Leslie) holding a gun over the body of her husband, Barney (Louis Hayward). She hears someone banging on the door and flees through the back, going to find her friend, William, at a bar. William is a poet who just escaped from a mental institute he'd been committed to by a patron of his work upset he'd failed to return her affections (the movie codes William as gay; apparently the novel this is based on confirms this). Shelia tells him what's happened, and he remarks he'd have pulled the trigger himself given the chance. He suggests going to her producer for assistance. On the way, Shelia makes a wish she could relive the prior year, and the narrator tells us time stopped for her and ran backwards. "She made a wish. A tragic one at a magic time."

She soon discovers what's happened: her husband is alive, no one but her has any memory of what's occurred, and she has the year to live over again. With her knowledge of the future, she reasons, she'll have no difficulty avoiding the same fate.

In the original timeline, we learn that Barney met and fell in love with Paula, a playwright in London, when Shelia was starring in that same woman's play. As a result of the affair, Barney took up drinking again and became convinced Shelia was preventing him from being happy. All she needs to do is refuse to go to London, and none of that should occur.

But Paula shows up at their New Year's party, and Barney is instantly smitten. It doesn't help that Shelia is unable to conceal her disdain for Paula, a woman who everyone else believes she's just met. She also warns William to avoid Eloise Shaw, the woman who had him committed in the original timeline, but they meet at Shelia's party. Eloise offers to publish William's poetry, and - despite Shelia's warning - he takes her up on the offer. Barney starts drinking, and Shelia resolves to remove him from the situation before the relationship can progress, bringing him with her to California. 

They spend a few months there before Shelia's lured back to New York by her producer, who promises Paula will be in London. This of course doesn't last, as Barney sends for the playwright under the guise of the play needing work. They start seeing more of each other, despite Shelia's best efforts.

During a Thanksgiving party, Barney becomes inebriated and - after he's caught kissing Paula - stumbles off a balcony and is seriously injured. Strictly speaking, this isn't the worst turn of events for Shelia, who has more control over her husband as he recovers. As far as she knows, he's unable to walk. 

Jumping ahead to Christmas, Shelia receives word that William has been committed, just as he'd been in the original timeline. The upside of this is that William's come to understand Shelia's claims of having seen all this play out are both literal and accurate, as she told him outright how the year would go back at the New Year's party.

While she's there, Paula comes by to visit Barney. She tells him that she's leaving for London and is breaking things off, but Barney refuses to listen. Shelia returns while they're talking, and Paula informs her that she's leaving and that she never loved Barney. Shelia hits her, Paula storms out, then Barney strikes Shelia.

On New Year's Eve, Barney - who's been lying to Shelia about being unable to walk - leaves a note saying he's going to leave with Paula, a plan he probably should have run by Paula first, as she flatly turns him down when he shows up on the boat she's taking to England. Meanwhile, Shelia, assuming he's actually left, views the whole thing as a mixed blessing - while she's lost her husband, the real horror she'd been trying to avoid seems out of reach. If Barney's on a boat, he can't assault her, and she won't be able to kill him in defense.

She goes home and climbs into bed, but as midnight approaches, we see her grow appreciably more frightened (sidenote: this is one of the tensest scenes I've seen in any movie from this era - fans of horror may want to track it down for this moment alone). A few minutes before twelve, her husband appears and drunkenly tells her how much he's come to hate her. He attacks as Shelia realizes in horror she doesn't have a gun in this timeline. But at the last moment, she hears a gunshot, and Barney falls to the floor. We see William holding the firearm and watching.

Police pound on the door and break in a moment later - they were there looking for William, afraid he'd try something. He happily surrenders, content that they won't be able to do anything to him, as he isn't of sound mind as far as the law is concerned. He speculates to Shelia that while destiny can't be changed, the details can be altered, and as such they've tricked fate - at least in this timeline, she won't be held accountable for the death of her husband. As the police take him outside, William looks back at the building, smiles, and says, "Happy New Year, Shelia." With that, the movie ends.

While that covers the story, there's a lot more going on under the surface. The main characters are all actors and writers, and the movie plays with the fact it's a story about storytellers. A great deal of time is spent exploring the nature of revision and the necessity of going through a story again and again in an attempt to get it right. That of course mirrors the time loop encompassing the film as a whole: Shelia is trying to revise her own story in the same way the characters are trying to revise the story of the play. The play, in a sense, is the movie, and the characters are therefore unable to change the ending. This is art about the creation of art.

Outside of the applicability this has for writers, actors, and others in artistic fields, the movie also functions as a warning about trying to fix abusers. The movie's exploration of domestic violence is notable for the time, as is evident from the lack of recourse the lead has. Despite the fact her life was in danger, she reasons that she'll be arrested for murder if caught. Shelia's mistake in the film is to try and save her husband and marriage when she'd have been better off walking away. "Destiny" here is essentially a stand-in for the fact that an abuser isn't likely to change.

This fascinates me, and not just because it's abnormally frank and ethical advice for a movie released during one of the most regressive periods in Hollywood's history. It's also a sort of subversion of the typical way the holidays have been framed thematically in romantic comedies. Rather than being a symbol of an opportunity for growth and transformation in which a couple overcomes their limitations and can start a new era together, we're given a vision of the New Year as the point a cycle repeats. In essence, this is criticizing the message romances set over the holidays have been sending for years as potentially dangerous, particularly for women.

It's worth noting that this couldn't have been the original intent, as the book this is based on reverses the roles of the couple. It's the wife, rather than the husband, who's a resentful drunk and the husband who experiences a time loop. The Wikipedia article connects this to concerns the lead actress wouldn't work as an antagonist, though I can't help but wonder if the filmmakers were also motivated by a desire to condemn domestic violence. 

I should also note the movie touches on other themes relevant to the holidays, not the least of which is that of time itself. The narrator uses terminology echoing that of the solstice, explicitly stating time stops and turns back for Shelia. The winter solstice, of course, occurs a bit before Christmas, but the term itself means the sun standing still and refers to the moment when the change in the duration of the day reverses from growing shorter to longer (and the reverse in summer).

Even setting this aside, the idea that the holidays occupy a sort of time outside of time is extremely old - at times, the old year was seen to end with Christmas, and the time between was part of neither. This is often connected to the idea that the holidays occur at a time of magic, which the movie absolutely invokes. I'm not certain whether any of this was intentional, but either way, it's noteworthy that the trope appears here. 

Speaking of things I'm skeptical were intentional....

This also feels oddly similar to ideas from Frazer's The Golden Bough that would seep into holiday media. Barney's death at a prescribed time and place, along with his resurrection due to the time loop, mimics the concept of a ceremonial sacrifice. Again, take this observation with a large grain of salt: the original story originally flipped the roles around, which wouldn't line up anywhere near as closely with Frazer's template. In addition, these ideas didn't really seep into mainstream Christmas media until the 1980s, so any resemblance is almost certainly coincidental. Even so, it does slot this into (or at least adjacent to) the subcategory of holiday entertainment that includes films such as Prometheus, The Green Knight, and even Hogfather

Regardless, it's also worth noting this absolutely qualifies as an example of Christmas time travel, which places it in the company of A Christmas Carol and countless other stories and films. More than that, the movie makes direct use of a tangent timeline, a concept likely originating with A Christmas Carol, though here we're shown an inversion of that story's optimism towards redemption and change. In a sense, this is taking that aspect of A Christmas Carol and changing back to the roots of time travel: myths about destiny such as Oedipus, where knowledge of the future gave people no power to change it (sidenote: I'd argue these myths qualify as time travel, as information is being sent through time and there's often an implication that the knowledge itself is what brings about that fate, thus inverting cause and effect... but this is already running long, so let's save that discussion for another time). 

Speaking of time - in case anyone's curious - the first thirty minutes take place on New Year's (technically two New Year's, due to time travel), and the last thirty minutes play out between Thanksgiving and the same New Year's Eve the movie opens on. That's a solid two-thirds of the runtime, in case this movie's holiday credentials were in doubt. But I hope my lengthy look at the ways the film's themes and premise tie to established Christmas and New Year's tropes and traditions are more than enough to put those questions to rest.

This one is well worth tracking down, if for no other reason than the fact it eschews the usual upbeat, hopeful tone of holiday fantasy in favor of the fatalistic anxiety dominating the start of the nuclear age, which...

Look, we talk Christmas movies here, so you should probably look elsewhere to explore how this fits into the tradition of post-war fatalism concerning the sense of impending doom accompanying the nuclear arms race. Though it's worth noting that the Doomsday Clock originated in 1947, the same year Repeat Performance came out, and there's an inherent connection between clocks and New Year's, which...

You know what? I've already spent significantly more time on this review than I spent watching the movie, and you get the idea. If you haven't seen this yet, track it down.