My first exposure to Fred MacMurray was with his early 1960’s family oriented sit-com, My Three Sons. Fred was a sort of befuddled widower who brought up three boys with the help of a crusty father-in-law (William Frawley) and later on a great uncle (William Demerest). During these same years, MacMurray made a series of family oriented films for Walt Disney; Son of Blubber, The Absented Minded Professor and Bon Voyage among them. The show, and these films, cemented an early image for me of MacMurray as a rather dull, and bland actor, a nice guy but uninteresting. In my defense, I have to add that at the time I knew very little about MacMurray’s earlier film career.
That would change the first time I watched Billy Wilder’s noir masterpiece, Double Indemnity. His Walter Neff was a classic noir sucker for a dame, willing to do dirty deeds for money and even more so for a seductive evil woman. Wilder once again brought out MacMurray’s dark side some years late in The Apartment where he played a sleazy corporate executive who used both women and men, in different ways, for his own salacious, adulterous desires. These two films exposed me to a new side of Fred MacMurray; He still looked like the nice quiet guy who lives next door but now underneath that good guy exterior laid a dark character with immoral desires.
This brings us to Pushover, a 1954 film with Kim Novak in her official screen debut (she had a bit role in the Jane Russell film The French Line). Novak was Columbia Studio’s answer to Marilyn Monroe and there are some early scenes in this film where I thought I detected Kim doing an imitation of Marilyn’s breathless soft whispering style of talking. Only about 21 years old at the time of the film’s release, Novak looks fantastic. Continuously criticized over the years for being limited in range as an actress, here she is alluring and provides a decent performance as a femme fatale in this early work. In fact, she is so extremely enticing it’s hard to blame MacMurray’s character for being a pushover for her. In real life, as well as reel life, director Richard Quine became her mentor and her lover. They would do at least five films together including Pffft!, Bell, Book and Candle, Strangers When We Meet and The Notorious Landlady.
Pushover is a quick moving low level Double Indemnity without the Wilder touch, nicely written by Roy Huggins who would go on to create the classic 1960’s television series The Fugitive” If you want proof of the quality writing just listen to the dialogue in a very early scene where Novak and MacMurray’s characters meet for the first time. There is some crisp double-entendre writing here worthy of Mr. Wilder.
The film begins with a bank robbery. Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards) and his partner steal $200,000 from a bank killing the bank guard in the process. We quickly cut to the outside of a movie theater where Lona McLane (Novak), dressed in a fur coat, is exiting the theater, a double feature showing It Should Happen to You and The Nebraskan, heading for her car. The car won’t start when suddenly a man’s voice is heard asking if she needs help. The man is Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) someone she noticed sitting alone inside the theater. Sheridan admits to noticing her too. How could he not? How many beautiful women do you see in a movie theater alone and wearing a fur coat? Paul tries to start up the car, checks under the hood, but admits to not being able to get enough spark, to which Lona seductively replies, “I’m not enough of a spark?” A repairman is called who informs them it will take a few hours to fix. The two agree to wait together by going to his apartment while her car is repaired. It’s made pretty obvious how they pass the time.
In the following scenes, we find out Paul is a cop and Lona is under suspicion of being Harry Wheeler’s girlfriend. Once convinced she is Wheeler’s main squeeze the police set up an observation post in an apartment across the street from her place, figuring that eventually Wheeler is going to show up. At one point during the surveillance, Lona puts on her coat and leaves the apartment. Paul volunteers to follow her. She ends up at a hotel waiting for Paul who by now she suspects is a cop. “I had my car checked”, she tells him, “there was nothing wrong. What did you do to it?” Lona is ready to walk out but they are hot for each other and swiftly fall into each other’s arms. Before long the two lovers have devised a plan that will put Lona’s boyfriend bank robber in jail without the police recovering the $200,000 in stolen money which Sheridan and Lona plan to keep and run off with. Things soon start to unravel; nosey next door neighbors, honest cops and too many cover ups all contribute to their downfall.
Pushover is suspenseful with touches of Hitchcock’s Rear Window voyeurism thrown. From an apartment across the way the cops are keeping surveillance on Lona’s apartment for a good portion of the film. They not only check on Lona but also start viewing her beautiful next-door neighbor (Dorothy Malone) who has a significant impact on the storyline. Unfortunately, these voyeuristic scenes do not have the erotic impact or suspense of the Hitchcock classic. The voyeurism in Rear Window is more enticing. With Hitchcock, we watch the James Stewart and Grace Kelly characters viewing the going’s-on in the various apartments across the courtyard. Then there is us, the moviegoers, also getting our own voyeuristic pleasures by not only watching what Stewart and Kelly are watching but by watching this attractive couple. In Pushover, while you see what’s going on in the two women’s apartments, and in the apartment the police setup up for surveillance, it is certainly more exciting to watch Stewart and Kelly than Fred MacMurray and his police cohorts recording conversations and drinking Joe. Of course watching any movie in itself is a voyeuristic act and we as moviegoers are all participants in this guilty pleasure.
After watching these scenes in Pushover, you may walk away with the impression that director Richard Quine made a derivative work of Hitchcock, or dare I say, Hitchcock was derivative of Quine? Well it was really neither, just coincidental that both films have similar voyeuristic scenes. Coincidently, the two films were not only both released in 1954, but within a week of each other!
Quine keeps the film claustrophobic, hard edged, and moving at a nice pace. As a director, Quine never live up to this early promise. His choice of films was eclectic (Pushover, My Sister Eileen, Sex and the Single Girl, The World of Susie Wong, Strangers When We Meet) and he never seemed to find his niche. At his best, his films are entertaining without standing out from the crowd. Two of his best comedies, Operation Madball and The Notorious Landlady were co-written by Blake Edwards. Quine’s career went downhill in the 1970’s mostly confined to TV shows, and in 1989, deep in depression, he unfortunately committed suicide. Fred MacMurray was always at his best when he is in his creep mode, in films like Double Indemnity, The Apartment, and The Caine Mutiny where he reveals a slimy quality behind a decent guy façade. Here, like in Double Indemnity, he’s a bit of a sap for a sexy dame, and Kim Novak is a hell of a sexy dame! From the very first scenes in the parking lot when she first meets MacMurray, Novak is incredibly alluring and has the most amazingly seductive eyes. For an actress of supposedly limited talent throughout her career she managed to work with some interesting directors; Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Robert Aldrich. I can only surmise that these talented men must have seen something in her. At her worst she sometimes can be stiff. At her best she is alluring, sexy and possesses a captivating aura that just sucks you in. The cast also includes E.G. Marshall as a police Lieutenant. Pushover is a decent, entertaining thriller; just do not expect anything new or innovative. Everything here has been done before, crooked cops, a guy who’s a sucker for a beautiful dame and stolen money.
PUSHOVER will be showing on TCM at 4AM EST. Set those DVR’S!
This review is a contribution to the Fred MacMurray Day of the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon.