Life and Death in L.A.: March 2023

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

‘Repeat Performance’: Happy New Year! — You're Dead

Louis Hayward, Joan Leslie, 'Repeat Performance' (1947).

By Paul Parcellin

Sometimes we could all use  a do-over, and that’s certainly the case with Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) who’s just capped off her year by turning her husband, Barney (Louis Hayward), into a corpse. But then something supernatural happens. Come midnight New Year’s Eve she finds herself not in the new year but repeating the previous year. Hubby is still alive and she’s got a second chance to fix her life and not plug her mate — sort of a year-long “Groundhog Day” that happens just once, if you catch my drift.

"Repeat Performance" (1947) asks whether experience prepares us to avoid mistakes we make, and Sheila does her level best to do just that by traveling to different locales and avoiding certain people. She reasons, quite sensibly, that if you break the chain of events leading up to an unfortunate incident you can nip the mishap in the bud. But, it turns out, fate is a stubborn thing.

Things began to sour last year when she and Barney traveled to London, so she insists that they go to California instead. She never tells Barney about the strange phenomenon she’s been experiencing, instead she confides in her neighbor, wisecracking poet Edward Edwards (Richard Basehart). However, try as she might to prevent them, events find a way of recurring. Sheila tries to stop Edwards from being committed to a mental institution as he had the previous year. And Paula Costello (Virginia Field), playwright and first-class home wrecker whom Sheila tries to ban from her residence, makes a grand appearance much to Sheila’s horror and Barney’s delight. 

Joan Leslie, Louis Hayward, Virginia Field.
It’s soon apparent that Sheila has overestimated her ability to keep disaster away from her doorstep. The trouble is, no matter what she does her husband is the same jerk he always was and no amount of clairvoyant insight is going to change that. 

We begin to understand how Sheila fell for Barney — when he turns on the charm he’s quite persuasive. In fact the two of them share some sweet moments together. But as his true character comes out, that of the failed, bitter playwright, we realize that he’s turned into a mean, womanizing drunk. Sheila tries to fix their relationship but it becomes evident that she’s wasting her time.

“Repeat Performance” is an outlier in the film noir canon, with its supernatural bent that conflicts with the earliest examples of noir, which lean toward hyper realism and rough-hewn characters who often inhabit downscale settings. Sheila and Barney are sophisticated New Yorkers and part of the upper middle class. What makes their story similar to those of other iconic characters in film noir is the palpable presence of fate. Invisible forces typically send these anti-heroes to ruin. You can change the events that lead to ruin, but you can’t change human nature, the film seems to tell us.

As it turns out, the do-over does in fact change the story’s outcome in a significant way as the hand of fate re-shuffles the deck. While you can’t drastically alter human nature, a few nips and tucks can make a world of difference.

We’re lucky to have a restored copy of “Repeat Performance” available on Blu-ray, courtesy of The Film Noir Foundation, UCLA and others. A 2007 screening of the film with an appearance by Joan Leslie was scheduled, and it was discovered that a 35mm print had deteriorated, so the foundation, the university and others coordinated the restoration. As with Sheila Page, an intervention can change what seems to be an inevitable unfortunate outcome. 

If you don't want to spring for the Blu-ray you can watch a well-worn print of it here on YouTube.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

‘Dementia’: A Feverish, Tortured Night on Skid Row

Adrienne Barrett, 'Dementia' (1955).
“Dementia” (1955) has many of film noir’s hallmarks: a dingy hotel room with a well-worn electric sign outside that nervously flashes off and on, shady characters prowling skid row’s streets and a posh-looking fat man who glides around town in the back seat of his limo. And of course tobacco smoke, deep, dark shadows and raking light that makes everything look sinister. 

Despite its noir earmarks, “Dementia” is mostly a psychologically driven horror film chock full of surrealistic imagery — equal parts Luis Buñuel, Raymond Chandler and John Carpenter with a heavy dollop of Sigmund Freud tossed in for good measure.  

In it, a tormented woman’s restless sleep is interrupted by paranoid delusions. She roams the streets in a business suit, looking like a Sarah Lawrence grad, except she brandishes a switchblade and as we soon discover, isn’t afraid to use it. 

She visits her parents’ graves in the dead of night and relives the violence she experienced as a child at the hands of her father and her mother’s indifference to it. Later, she’s waylaid by a pimp who attempts to put her to work for him, is chased by the cops and roughed up by some others. It’s a trippy exploration of madness as well as the ever-present threat of violence and sexual abuse that women endure. Probably “Torment” would have been a more fitting title for it.

In a Silent Way
Oh, and the film has no spoken dialog at all, just some written messages that fit into the story. One online version that I watched, titled merely “Dementia,” has a wheezing, growling electric guitar soundtrack that must have been dubbed in long after the film’s initial release — best to avoid that one. 

John Parker, the film’s writer, producer and director originally intended “Dementia” to be a short but revamped it into a feature length production. 

Bruno VeSota, Adrienne Barrett, 'Dementia'

The story is based on his secretary Adrienne Barrett’s dream, and he cast her to play the lead role. Viewing it today it’s hard to understand why the New York State Film Board banned it in 1953, but it was finally released two years later. Producer Jack H. Harris acquired it and re-released it in 1957 as “Daughter of Horror,” adding a bit of voice over narration. 

The soundtrack has the kind of swooning melodies you'd expect in a schlock horror film — music by George Antheil, orchestration by Ernest Gold, with The Giants, Shorty Rogers, and vocals by Marni Nixon. 

Also on the hokey side is the narration performed by Ed McMahon prior to his stint on “The Tonight Show.” It's over the top, but adds needed clarity to the story. 

If you don’t like low-budget, independent art films, “Dementia” is probably not your cup of tea. It’s more akin to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” than to traditional noir studio productions like “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past.” 

But on the plus side it does possess a certain saturnine visual poetry that is heavy on symbolism, charmingly corny, and makes the most of dark, shadowy landscapes where danger lurks around every corner — the stuff that always lures us in.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

One Step Beyond: Film Noir and the Supernatural

Edward G. Robinson, 'Night Has a Thousand Eyes' (1948).

We can all daydream of possessing special powers, because who wouldn’t want greater insight into their life and extraordinary abilities to manipulate the hands of fate? But if there’s one thing that speculative fiction teaches us is that supernatural powers — mind reading, communicating with the dead and other such phenomena — all come with a steep price tag. 

That’s certainly true for mentalist John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) in “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948). He describes his ability to see into the future as something like travel aboard a train. A passenger might see a farmhouse, then a field of corn followed by a pasture of grazing cows. But someone standing on the train’s roof can see all three motifs in one glance. And for better or worse Triton is one who stands atop his own train car as it barrels through the countryside.

That may sounds enticing to some — certainly not to me. But what if those supernatural powers bring about little more than misery and alienation from the people you care about most? That’s a common theme in “supernatural noir,” a blend of film noir and supernatural fiction, two genres that fit together like a dovetail joint. 

In noir, a protagonist is usually alienated from his or her environment and faces crushing circumstances that threaten their very existence. Add unpredictable supernatural forces into the mix and a noir anti-hero gets a double whammy of everyday and otherworldly forces that mean trouble — a dark place to find oneself, indeed. 

As Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the beaten down piano player in "Detour" (1945) says, "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Noir anti-heroes are destined for failure, and the supernatural  works hand in hand with fate to bring about the flawed character's inevitable downfall.

“Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is one of those noir-tinged leaps into the realm of speculative fiction that in shortened form would fit comfortably in “The Twilight Zone” (1959 - 1964) TV series. Speaking of which, aren’t a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes especially noir-like?

John Lund, Gail Russell, Edward G. Robinson.
A Charlatan Becomes a Psychic 

It’s odd and somehow fitting that vaudeville mentalist Triton should be gifted with the power to see the future. He’s a fairly successful entertainer with a phony mind reading act who, for unknown reasons, develops supernatural powers. It’s as if  he offended the gods by pretending to be clairvoyant and they are taking revenge by bestowing on him the psychic foresight he’d been faking. Now, he must bear the torment of foreseeing tragic accidents and deaths that befall people around him. That includes not only strangers but also almost everyone in his inner circle. Once it becomes obvious to him that he’s cursed with horrifying powers he begins to wonder whether he’s simply predicting these deaths, or could it be that he’s somehow making them happen? 

Of course, it’s not just tragedy that he foresees. He picks winning racehorses for his piano accompanist and buddy Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan) who thinks Triton’s new abilities are just swell. Early on, his powers seem to be a blessing. He helps save the life of a young boy playing with matches who sets his bed afire. But thereafter his predictions grow increasingly grim and depressingly accurate. 

He exists in an existential no man’s land where his “gift” can bring great riches or somehow trigger death and he has little control over which of the two his visions will bring about. Faced with this crisis, he stops using his powers to pick winning racehorses or juicy business opportunities — by and by, Courtland becomes a rich man due to Triton’s psychic insight.

In one of his flashes of foresight he sees doom, and in a panic he abandons his fiancée (Virginia Bruce) and Courtland with no explanation. The only chance of avoiding tragedy, he believes, is to leave and never return. Holed up in a seedy Bunker Hill tenement in downtown Los Angeles, he goes into self-imposed isolation. His room overlooks the Angels Flight funicular that chugs up and down the steep incline. Likewise, he moves through his days with a mechanical repetitiveness, avoiding human contact for it can only bring about tragedy and heartache. 

When finally an opportunity for redemption arrives, it comes wrapped in impending tragedy, so at best Triton can save a life, but in doing so his actions will exact a great cost to himself.


There’s a handful of noirs with a supernatural theme running through them. They include “Alias Nick Beal,” “Night Tide,” and “Ministry of Fear,” to mention a few — I’m sure there are more. What others am I missing? 

Some, like “Dementia,” "The Seventh Victim" and “Cat People” combine elements of horror, film noir and expressionism. More about them in my next post.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Jazz Mania: Film Noir, Bebop and the Devil’s Music

Elisha Cook Jr., 'Phantom Lady' (1944)

You might be surprised to learn that jazz didn’t show up in film noir right away even though by the 1940s swing was part of the popular music landscape and bebop was well on its way to becoming a solid American art form. But you wouldn’t know it by watching “The Maltese Falcon” and other early noir offerings. 

The fact is, initially at least, film noir producers didn’t seem to dig that style of freewheeling music. Typically, they played it safe, sticking with traditional orchestral arrangements instead of cool improvisational compositions played by hip bands and small combos. In short, when it came to music, Hollywood establishment cats were squares.

A couple of noir films finally presented a scene or two of jazz musicians doing their thing, but in both cases the music serves as a backdrop that fairly drips of sex, drugs, crime and madness — in other words, good, if overheated, material for a crime drama, but unflattering to the musical genre itself.

Ella Raines, Elisha Cook Jr., "Phantom Lady"
For openers, “Phantom Lady” (1944) offers a strange, mesmerizing view of an impromptu basement jam session. It may not have been jazz’s first appearance in noir, but it sticks in the memory. 

Based on the Cornell Woolrich novel of the same title, “Phantom Lady”  is a nightmarish odyssey that takes place over a single night. The story involves a woman’s hat, which becomes the object of an obsessive hunt that leads to run-ins with dangerous characters in shadowy corners of an unforgiving urban sprawl. 

Carol Richman (Ella Raines) crosses paths with Cliff (Elisha Cook Jr.), the drummer in a pit orchestra. They flirt and he brings her to an after hours jam session. Cliff sits in with the other musicians and the scene’s centerpiece is his drum solo, a performance that is a none-too-subtle expression of sexual  desire — Cliff is the one whose temperature rises to the boiling point, while Carol plays along in hope of getting vital information from him. 

He pounds out a frenzied solo on a trap set, his maniacal, leering expression, aimed at Carol, registers a 10 on the creep meter. Cliff later figures out that Carol has been leading him on and she splits before there’s any trouble, leaving Cliff to catch his breath and take a cold shower.

Then there’s the nightclub scene in “D.O.A.” (1949), which gives us a cartoonish rendition of both jazz and the kookie audience that grooves on the stuff. 

Frank Gerstle, Edmond O'Brien, 'D.O.A.' (1949)
Above all else, “D.O.A.” is a sobering, paranoid meditation on nuclear radiation’s deadly effects on the human race, and the pitfalls of self-absorption and hedonism. Small-town accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) comes to the big city and by chance meets a bunch of traveling salesmen and their lady companions who are all staying at his hotel. They persuade him to come to a bar and it turns out to be a hipster scene. 

Frank, a bit of a square, came to San Francisco to let his hair down before making up his mind whether or not to propose to his sweetheart back home. So he’s tantalized to check out this pre-beatnik era hangout for the bohemian set. He mingles with a lady at the bar and makes a date to meet her later that night. All the while a jazz combo is blowing up a storm on the bandstand. The excitement builds until the musicians and the crowd are in a frenzied state. The nightclub practically levitates as both the band and club patrons get caught up in the frenzied beat to the point of madness. 

The bartender, inured to the cacophony, shrugs it off. They’re “jive crazy," he says. "That means they go for this stuff.”

Frank doesn’t much understand the hipster crowd, but it looks like he’s gotten lucky, and that plus the booze are clouding his better judgment. He’s too distracted to pay much attention to the man slipping something into his drink. He takes a big sip of his tainted cocktail and things start to go sideways.

Swinging in San Francisco, 'D.O.A.'
Like the scene in “Phantom Lady,” an infectious rhythm dominates the action like a swift current carrying small crafts toward the edge of a waterfall. Both films seem to be saying that jazz is not only background music for bad behavior, it’s perhaps a catalyst for it. And while both scenes border on self parody, they are oddly striking, maybe even iconic. 

The action and cross-cutting is thrilling and mind-bending. The hyped-up, cartoonish performances may not be an accurate depiction of how real jazz is played — although, of the two, “Phantom Lady” comes closer to the real McCoy — but in each case the music becomes a powerful antagonistic force that tests the heroes’ mettle. Personally speaking, those are two gigs that I wouldn’t mind attending, martini in hand.


In later years Hollywood got hip to modern music, and jazz held a more exalted position in noir. Here are a handful of memorable performances.

“Gilda” (1946). More of a big band performance than modern jazz, Rita Hayworth wows them with a smoldering rendition of  “Put the Blame on Mame.”

“Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), featuring a performance by the Chico Hamilton Quintet.

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1957), score by Miles Davis.

“I Want to Live” (1957), score by Johnny Mandel and Gerry Mulligan.

“Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959), score by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.  

I’d venture to guess that there are more that belong on the list. Which are your favorites?