Wednesday, December 28, 2022

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance

William O’Farrell’s Repeat Performance was published in 1942.

It is 1942. Barney Page is a successful Broadway actor. At least he was a successful actor. Now he’s a bum. He blames himself for his wife Sheila’s death. And he knows he was responsible for his mistress Fern’s death. He remembers strangling her. He knows the cops will soon be closing in on him. His producer John Friday tells him that maybe he can help him. Barney trusts John Friday. John tells him that what Barney’s life needs is a rewrite job.

Surprisingly Barney gets the chance to do that rewrite job. Because now it’s 1941. None of the things that wrecked his life have happened yet. Barney knows they’re going to happen, but that knowledge might give the chance he needs. Now he’s more like the director of the play that is his life, rather than just an actor in it.

And Barney knows all the mistakes he’s going to make. Every one of them. It should be possible to avoid them. He knows he should not take the movie job he’s been offered because if he goes to Hollywood he’ll meet Fern and he’ll have an affair with her. So he decides that he is definitely not going to Hollywood.

He also knows that it’s important not to sleep with Pete McCord’s wife. That’s a big mistake he made, or rather it’s a big mistake he’s going to make unless he’s careful.

He has to make sure Sheila doesn’t meet Jake. Jake is the writer of the play in which Barney is about to star. If he can prevent them from meeting they won’t sleep together, and Sheila might not die.

Barney knows about other mistakes he’s going to make as well. He has to keep away from the booze.

Of course knowing the dumb things you’re going to do and the disastrous consequences that will follow doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going to do those dumb things anyway. Barney however is determined to try, and he does try. He tries really hard.

There is a crime but this isn’t really a crime novel in a conventional sense. It is however very definitely noir fiction. It’s a different kind of noir novel, in which the protagonist knows how his own story is going to end. He knows the ending, but he thinks he can change it. He thinks he can write the script for his life as he lives it.

Barney is a nice enough guy. He has never intended to hurt anyone. He likes people. He has no dislike of women. He just doesn’t quite have the strength of character to avoid temptations, especially temptations of the feminine variety. He ends up in bed with women without really knowing how it happened. Barney isn’t particularly driven by lust. It’s more loneliness. He doesn’t have the emotional closeness with Sheila than a man should have with his wife, and it seems to that need for emotional connection that drives him.

Barney qualifies as a noir protagonist. The three women however don’t really fit into the femme fatale category. Sheila isn’t a bad girl, although she drinks too much. It’s not really anyone’s fault that the marriage didn’t work out.

Fern is not the kind of woman who sets out to steal other women’s men, but with Barney it just kind of happened.

Sis isn’t a classic bad girl. She’s promiscuous and Pete should never have married her but she’s not an evil spider woman.

The whole rewriting his life thing raises obvious questions. Is this a science fiction/crime crossover story? Is something supernatural or paranormal happening? Is it a dream or just a distorted memory? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Repeat Performance was filmed in 1947, which is intriguing. I could think of so many ways that Hollywood could have made a mess of an adaptation, and in my opinion that's exactly what they did. Here's my review of the movie.

Repeat Performance is a bit of an oddity and it’s worth reading for that reason. It’s also a decent noir-tinged romantic melodrama. Highly recommended.

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