While more or less packaged as straight-up noir, Repeat Performance (1947) is in fact an early progenitor of a filmic fantasy trope often attributed to Groundhog Day—which makes this obscure item nearly five decades ahead of its time. It opens with a gunshot, as actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) kills her husband, frustrated playwright Barney Page (Louis Hayward). Sheila flees the scene to a New Year’s Eve party, where she confesses the crime to her close friend, poet William Williams (Richard Basehart). Together, they set out to the home of producer John Friday (Tom Conway) to seek advice on what to do next—but as they near Friday’s apartment, William vanishes into thin air. When Friday invites Sheila into his apartment a moment later, she is wearing last year’s dress, Friday isn’t even aware of the hit play she’s currently starring in, and soon enough, she learns that Barney is still alive. At midnight, it seems, the year has reset entirely, giving Sheila a chance to rewrite fate. Using her foreknowledge of what’s to come, she looks to steer Barney away from the path that destroyed their marriage. But despite her efforts, the stars seem to have plans for Sheila and Barney, and while the details may differ, the results may end up just as tragic.
Tinged with a subdued undercurrent of Twilight Zone-like fantasy, Repeat Performance will play to modern viewers like the raw, early experiment it is, dialogue spelling out narrative turns that seasoned filmgoers will now find obvious. But there’s something infectious about watching this familiar idea finds its legs, the script hesistantly feeling out the concept’s then-novelty. Like many films of its era, it flows effortlessly, the narrative carried by Leslie’s earnest heroism in the face of her character’s impossible situation. Does one get the sense that Sheila might not have learned enough from the previous year’s experience, given what she’s presumably experienced of Barney’s lurking toxicity? Perhaps, but that’s not surprising given the era’s blind spots on gender politics, and it also serves the plot’s suspenseful escalation. Meanwhile, the script is sympathetic to Sheila’s dilemma, and the struggle she once again subjects herself to—despite ominous foreknowledge—actually feels realistic in the context of an abusive relationship, as well as feeding nicely into the plot’s dark, noir theme. All of this isn’t to say it’s a masterful take on its core concept, which of course receives numerous, far more clever takes later in film history. But as a unique crime thriller with rare fantasy elements, it probably deserves more credit for pioneering a cinematic trend than it has gotten.