William O’Farrell

William O’Farrell – Eddie Meuller, on his TCM program Noir Alley, recently introduced the film version of William O’Farrell’s novel Repeat Performance by pointing out the major character and plot reversal of the book in the movie.  In the film, actress Sheila Page kills her playwright husband on New Year’s Eve, and finds her wish to repeat the year over to avoid the tragedy granted – with unnerving results.  However, the original novel centered on actor Barney Page being granted his wish for a “repeat performance” after alienating nearly all his friends, failing to prevent his wife’s suicide, hitting the skids, and finally murdering his paramour.  Both book and novel bring home the noir philosophy that no one is captain of her or his destiny. Try as we may, we cannot outmaneuver fate.  O’Farrell’s novel initially makes us sympathize with Barney as we see him determined to do things right this time around, cheering him on as he short circuits the current carrying him to tragedy that had laid waste to his life and that of his circle.  Yet he slowly finds his plans diverted back to tragic destinations by accident, the flaws in others, and his own smugness.  This is when O’Farrell leaves you wondering:  Does fate control us?  Does our flawed nature attract us to the orbit of those who will drag us down? Is our giving in to the smugness, weakness, vindictiveness inevitable or a choice?  As you read Barney’s excuses for dropping back into the groove of acting in ways that will destroy himself and others, do you cringe in sympathy or inwardly yell, “Don’t do that, you jackass!”?  I tend toward the latter response; but, to O’ Farrell’s credit, he made Barney so real, so feeling, so human that I had to shake myself out of too much sympathy.
Some intriguing points about the book should be considered.  The description of the New York theater scene in the early 1940s is on the money.  You get a moving feel for the sights, smells, feel of the city – stark sunshine on busy afternoon street, convivial and yet not hole-in-the-wall clubs, the seediness of skid row, noir that ranges from dreamy evenings drifting into morning to relentless nightmare.  The character of William – (only William in the movie but William and Mary in the book) demonstrates that 1930-40s novelists could be considerably more mature than many twenty-first century individuals.  This guy happens to be gay and a transvestite (though the latter fact gets only one slight but definite illustration in the novel).  He’s also probably one of the most genuinely admirable characters in the book.  Granted, he’s not Mr. Perfection, running some scams on pretentious hypocrites and having an odd but understandable addiction to nickels.  He’s something of an insouciant Oscar Wilde for seeing into the heart of things and mordantly commenting on what he sees.  More importantly, William and Mary is only the one who sticks to the main character throughout and even risks his life at one point doing so.  Finally, the book is just a pleasure to read, with O’Farrell being a consummate wordsmith in creating scene and mood, delving into characters by letting their own words and reveal who they are.
Not surprisingly, O’Farrell was a writer for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller, programs that twisted the knives of suspense and irony in our psyches.  He was also an Edgar winner for one of his short stories. Brian Light provides one interesting comparison of the book and film versions of Repeat Performance, while Dan Stumpf provides another that includes informative feedback on Louis Hayward, who played Barney.
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2 thoughts on “William O’Farrell

    1. I know, it is such a surprising work. However, I have to say that many other writers of the ’30s-50s were much more mature and reasonable about issues of race, gender identity, class inequality, and women’s rights than you see in the contemporary movies. Many were also were also more willing to end on the dark side. Think of David Goodis and Margaret Millar to name a couple on both counts. I wish more people of this century would have such wise insights.


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