In the last few decades, noir has emerged so decisively as a favorite area of film history that specialized Blu-ray labels that put out digital restorations of films can be termed noir in any sense of the term, even if the films are hybrids of noir and other elements. Film buffs are glad for any excuse to rescue old movies, so we’re not complaining. Now let’s put our heads together and hammer out a conspiracy to convince everyone that old musicals and women’s melodramas are hipper than high heels.
Be that as it shall, it’s a treat to come across these little-known gems fetched from noir’s nooks and crannies. That describes two welcome releases: Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray/DVD combo of Alfred Werker‘s Repeat Performance (1947) and Film Detective’s Blu-ray of John Sturges’ The Capture (1950).
Repeat Performance (1947)
This amazing story begins in the clouds as background to the credits, while George Antheil’s sweeping romantic music implies some kind of heavenly or fateful vibe. Then the camera pans down from a starry night sky to a city panorama combining painted fraudulence, flashing lights, and model trickery.
An omniscient narrator (John Ireland) informs us it’s New Year’s Eve. He conveys a mix of the portentous, the mysterious, and the gloating that characterized many spooky radio anthologies of the era, such as Suspense, Lights Out, and The Mysterious Traveler, all stylistic forerunners of Rod Serling‘s TV series The Twilight Zone.
The camera crosses magically from arty model to genuine set, the balcony of a fancy penthouse apartment, just as the french windows blow open under pressure from uncanny winds and to the sound of gunshots. The camera hurries past the heroine’s back and casts a glance at the man’s corpse on the floor. It turns to her face.
Our distraught heroine looks with horror at the body and the shiny gun in her hands, as an Eastern woman’s sculpted face gazes at her impassively from the left wall with a hint of mystic karma. Someone starts a-pounding on the Art Deco door, flanked by classic marble columns topped by voluptuous urns. Grabbing her purse, she flees down a very deluxe fire escape and emerges into the packed streets of noisy, oblivious merrymakers who take no notice of the shell-shocked sleepwalker among them.
We’ll learn her name is Sheila Page (Joan Leslie), and she’s a Broadway star currently headlining a hit called, with dapper irony, Say Goodbye. The man she’s just killed is her alcoholic, unfaithful husband Barney (Louis Hayward), a one-hit playwright whom we’ll learn is a self-hating package tilting into madness. Or he was before she shot him.
With difficulty, Sheila pushes her way to an inebriated group of friends in a restaurant where she summons her confidant William Williams (Richard Basehart). The effete blond poet wrote Songs from the Solar Plexus, just one of the script’s endless witty details. His name, like the several mirror shots, implies the story’s duality. He might or might not be coded as homosexual, or else he’s secretly in love with Sheila. Sheila confesses what she’s just done, and he takes it more or less in stride, saying he wishes he’d been the one to shoot her husband, and he’d have done it if she asked.
They’re walking up Gothic stairs to the apartment of Sheila’s producer John Friday (Tom Conway) when Sheila begins wishing that she could relive the year over. She’d know just how to avoid this catastrophe. When she arrives at Friday’s door, William has vanished and Friday’s remarks convey that they’re embarking on 1946, even though Sheila knows that year’s just finished.
It finally dawns on her that she’s gotten her wish, and she can immediately start unmaking all her decisions over the past year. What a concept! Just as immediately, the fickle forces of fate start arranging to undo her undoings, forcing new developments into the old patterns, as though Destiny will not be balked. The warp may change but the woof sticks.
Everything Sheila does only delays the inevitable. Barney’s affections are still stolen by brittle English playwright Paula Costello (Virginia Field), who writes Sheila’s hit play. William still comes under the sway of wealthy patroness Eloise Shaw (Natalie Schafer), who expects her protégés or projects to pay due homage with their personal services, even though Sheila has warned William that Eloise will commit him to an asylum.
As The Film Noir Foundation‘s Eddie Muller explains in an introduction, many people will debate whether this glamorous Broadway melodrama is really a noir movie. It’s certainly a fable of fatality. As the informed and lively commentary by film historian Nora Fiore points out, the 1942 novel by William O’Farrell is unmistakably a hardboiled noir, despite its fantasy wrinkle.
In radically refashioning the story for Joan Leslie, writer Walter Bullock and producer Aubrey Schenck make it more unusual than the novel’s typical elements of the sap and femme fatale. However, one element that couldn’t fly under the Production Code is that the novel presents the poet as a sometime cross-dresser called “William and Mary”, which must put an interesting angle on his friendship with the male protagonist.
One of Fiore’s trenchant observations is that the women are complex independent characters rather than reductive noir binaries – the supporting wife vs. the career woman, for example. None of the women need a man; they just want one. This applies even to Eloise Shaw, who’s no mere pretender but knows her artists, and to the sassy alcoholic actress played by Benay Venuta. Even the unobtrusive maid (Ilke Gruning) gets in one smart zinger.
Alfred Werker directed 30 years’ worth of features without making a big impression. He does a fine job here, holding in control the many characters and elements in this unusual story. He’d go on to get a chilling noir performance from Basehart in He Walked by Night (1948). Kudos to cinematographer L. William O’Connell, art and visual effects by Jack Rabin and Walter J. Teague, Edward C. Jewell’s art direction, set decorator Armor Marlowe, editor Louis Sackin, and the eye-popping gowns by Oleg Cassini, which do seem to hail from another world.
Prior to shooting this indie for Eagle-Lion, Werker’s most notable films were probably House of Rothschild (1934), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939, and Shock (1946), all for Twentieth Century-Fox, and Disney’s The Reluctant Dragon (1941). In 1949, he received acclaim for an indie produced by Louis de Rochement, Lost Boundaries, based on a real-life African-American family who passed for white. This breakthrough film has been largely forgotten.
Trivia note: The dialogue in Repeat Performance keeps reminding us that Barney’s hit play was called Out of the Blue. That sounds like another ironic comment on the proceedings. As Fiore explains, that’s also an in-joke to another Eagle-Lion film written by Bullock the same year in collaboration with mystery writer Vera Caspary. That film’s description sounds like a saucy, frantic black comedy of a type that should have interested Alfred Hitchcock.
Repeat Performance has been restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funds from Film Noir Foundation and Packard Humanities Institute. This Blu-ray/DVD combo includes bonus profiles of Leslie and Eagle-Lion, and the booklet offers an excellent comparison between novel and film. This is a loving, fitting tribute to a film that was effectively lost for decades.
The Capture (1950)
Much of John Sturges’ The Capture (1950) looks, acts, and quacks like a western, albeit one set in contemporary Mexico rather than the Old West. At the same time, it’s clearly noir, complete with flashbacks and wry narration and a hunted protagonist tortured by his conscience and his irrational actions.
The film opens by panning over a rocky landscape where a lawman rides a horse. As the man passes a pond or gulch overshadowed by a webby tree, another man’s head emerges warily from under the water, his back to the camera. As the man on horseback disappears, our soaked man turns and displays himself as our star, Lew Ayres, a kindly and morally upright persona in decades of Hollywood product.
He nurses what seems like a dead right arm as the image makes one of several unusual zooms that appear throughout the film. These moments show characteristics of optical zooms created in post-production, and that’s even more unusual. This odd stylistic tic appears within often ravishingly beautiful black and white photography of master Edward Cronjager, whose work is as much the “star” of The Capture as Ayres.
After a few more incidents identifying the locale as rural Mexico (though shot in California with an eye to Spanish architecture), the hunted man holes up with a Catholic priest, Father Gomez (Victor Jory), and relates the story in a series of flashbacks that make up the running time. Our hero identifies himself as Lin Vanner, an American working for a US company in Mexico’s oil fields. This sensible contemporary detail introduces the theme of international capitalist interests that drive and explain the criminal story. Not only does it reflect real US/Mexico relations of the era but it plays into a stream of Hollywood’s Mexico-set noirs, some of which even shot footage there. Most of these films were set in border areas, symbolizing the hero’s liminal psychic states, whereas The Capture takes place well within a folkloric and picturesque rural Mexico that offers both harshness and succor.
After two payroll robberies, a company VP named Earl Mahoney (Barry Kelley) has decided to bring the money personally. He arrives with a sensational tale of a robbery that killed most of the guards. Lin dopes out his own idea of where the robber must have gone and follows that hunch, leading to the capture of a surly American oil worker, Tevlin (Edwin Rand). Tevlin failed to raise his wounded right arm in surrender, so Lin shot him in what proved a fatal wound.
Or is that what happened? The interpretation of events is so confusing, with the implication that Mahoney may have done something to Tevlin, that Lin’s conscience is bothered. In one of several mysterious acts of his own, which his narration admits he doesn’t quite understand and that don’t always make rational sense, Lin quits his job and eventually takes a job as ranch-hand with Tevlin’s widow, Ellen (Teresa Wright). Under false pretenses, he takes a new surname and fails to explain who he really is.
Like many noir protagonists who don’t fully grasp their own motives or think things through, he has a knack for creating major problems for himself. The last half-hour finds him buckling down to play detective and figure out what happened, while the psychological action involves his taking the dead man’s place and even copying his useless right arm, as though driven by a need to create a situation that will mimic Tevlin’s end.
Although the film doesn’t hammer on the crime story as much as Lin’s psychology, intriguing implications arise. When we first hear of a string of robberies, viewers might assume this Mexican hinterland is being associated with lawlessness, like a contemporary version of the Wild West. The culprit is soon identified as a displaced Yankee, one identified as resembling Lin before he begins to take on more similarities. Eventually, the American source of criminality will travel higher up class lines, leaving a general impression of Americans as a corrupting or exploiting force that bring trouble to Mexico. Nobody spells this out.
Also in the cast are Jacqueline White as Lin’s dumped girlfriend, Jimmy Hunt as Ellen’s son, Duncan Renaldo and William Bakewell as old friends, and eternal character player Milton Parsons as the glowering Thin Man. I wish I knew who played the blind Mexican singer, who adds an interesting element to Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score.
Though distributed by RKO, this film was produced independently by its writer, Niven Busch, a successful novelist and screenwriter. At this period, he was creating scripts with parts for his wife, Teresa Wright, such as the magnificent psychological noir-western Pursued (1947, Raoul Walsh). His script here is fraught with noir’s uncertainties and psychological problems. Although Wright’s role only dominates the second act and not the whole film, she handles Ellen’s internal conflicts and widow’s strength with the skill and intelligence she always commanded.
Busch was smart to hire director John Sturges, who’d demonstrated his chops with B-films and would establish himself with successful he-man melodramas such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), whose hero also makes do with one good arm, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). He’s comfortable with scenarios of masculine conflict and camaraderie, populated by characters haunted by guilt and shame over past acts.
Film historians C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Park collaborate on an amiable commentary track that discusses the artists. The disc offers short bonuses on Wright and Sturges. However, one flaw keeps this otherwise excellent presentation of a public-domain item from being definitive. At about the 68-minute mark, there’s a clear jump in the narrative over the discovery of a hanged man. The YouTube presentation, which otherwise can hardly be recommended, reveals the jolting shot that’s missing; it’s very shocking and arty in its use of shadow and a stairwell are a visual highlight the film shouldn’t do without.