It’s no secret that the film industry is a copycat business. When something comes along and strikes gold, others are sure to follow suit in thinly veiled attempts to capitalize on the first product’s success, hoping to replicate and maybe even improve upon it. How many gritty, handheld action thrillers have starred Liam Neeson since 2008’s Taken? The cynical answer is ‘too many’, but the point is that studios, filmmakers and stars themselves do not shy away from the rinse and repeat formula in order to keep the flames of popularity and good business burning bright. Fred MacMurray’s most famous role is probably that of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, in which he plays an insurance agent who gets caught up, willingly, in a treacherous and sexy game of theft with Barbara Stanwyck. 10 years later, he played undercover detective Paul Sheridan in Richard Quine’s The Pushover. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Pushover shows a level of sophistication straight from the outset, depicting a bank heist with no more than images and music. In a 2-3 minute sequence entirely devoid of dialogue, masked bank robbers cleverly catch the branch’s opening hour employees off guard, as well as early bird clients, all held at gunpoint as they make away with the cash, but not before shooting down a foolish guard that tries playing the hero. As it turns out, the ringleader is one Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards), someone the police have been after for some time, among them detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray), who makes a play for Wheeler’s girl one night after tracking her down at the movies. The young lady in question, Lona McLane (Kim Novak, in her very first film role), agrees to have Paul take her home after she has ‘car problems’, but it isn’t long before she smells a rat, or a cop, to be fair. Clearly her interest in Wheeler is fleeting, because it doesn’t take long for her to convince Paul that they make off with the money once Wheeler comes out of hiding. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse during a stake out mission involving Lona, Paul, his partners Rick (Phil Carey) and Paddy (Allen Nourse) and the girl next to Lona that Rick falls in love with, Anne (Dorothy Malone).
A complicated set-up, to be sure, but it results in an extremely entertaining thriller. Anybody that has seen Billy Wilder’s iconic picture Double Indemnity will undoubtedly get a sense of déjà vu, which is more than fair. After all, MacMurray is ostensibly playing the same character, save for the profession (cop rather than an insurance agent). A slightly older man than his leading lady, who is yet again a blonde, working an honest job yet definitely has a sneaky streak in him, that decides to engage in a scheme in which he back stabs everyone in order to make away with money that doesn’t belong to him and a girl she shouldn’t be with. Lots of lying ensues, in particular towards his partners and superior, much like how his Walter Neff has to tip toe around Edward G. Robinson’s suspicions in Double Indemnity.
It’s terribly easy to criticize a film for obviously copying a previous endeavor’s winning formula. True enough, as far as the plot’s outline goes, Pushover lacks originality. Conversely, when a film has as much fun conjuring up sticky predicaments for the two leads to wiggle their way out of as the Richard Quine’s effort, holding on to the originality argument gets old very fast. The Pushover is a sexy, inventive, tension-filled drama that doesn’t overstay its welcome, nor does it abuse of its premise.
The location in which most of the action transpires proves fertile ground for the conniving that follows. The cops know where Lona lives and are convinced that, at some point, Wheeler will show. They therefore move into an empty apartment across from Lona’s to spy on her. The complex itself is in a u-shape, and there is a girl, Ann, who lives next to Lona but takes the same (possibly only) elevator as the detectives. Rick likes the girl, and she likes him, but the detective cannot reveal his identity while on assignment, although he proverbially checks up on her from afar. Eventually Ann gets mixed up in the plot, much to Paul’s chagrin, complicating matters even more so. Director Quine makes tremendous use of the location, utilizing the spatial geography to the fullest effect. No one is ever far apart from each other yet not always next to one another, with the relative confines of the building either putting the schemers at ease or clouding their chances of a success escape. Kudos to the filmmakers for planting the story in and on the roof of the single location, as well as squeezing as much fun as they can out of it.
Another one of the film’s strengths, this one directly reverts to comparisons with Wilder’s 1944 picture, is Fred MacMurray himself. There is something incredibly amusing about how he plays characters trying to outmaneuver everyone around them, constantly faced with new hurdles they couldn’t have foreseen. MacMurray has this way about acting with facial expressions when Paul is coming up with a new contingency plan on the fly because of some loopy happening that’s muddled things again. It’s a brilliant mixture of “Wait, I’m thinking” and “This is gonna work. I’m a genius!” Of course, the audience knows that he is in fact overthinking the plan and that it shan’t work out in the end.
Lest she be overlooked, there is Kim Novak. Unquestionably better known for her collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on Vertigo, Novak’s career never took off as some might have predicted. She made a decent number of pictures, but semi-retired from acting in 1966, only sporadically returning for the occasional film or television series. None of her other projects ever gained the same notoriety as the Hitchcock classic. It comes as no surprise that studios and filmmakers took notice her of after The Pushover. While she isn’t given the meatiest of roles, Novak’s talents come through in sultry fashion. Her presence has strength to it, with her mannerisms and voice suggesting a confident personality. It’s really quite fitting that two years later she would play the role of a woman that a private eye obsesses over given that she easily exuded that aura anyways. Regardless of the qualities of the films she worked on, Novak herself was an arresting actress, for her physique, her smoky voice, and the powerful aura she projected from the screen. She is wonderful to observe in The Pushover, for a whole variety of qualties.
There are plenty of reasons why cinephiles will point towards Double Indemnity as a great Fred MacMurray noir before even thinking about The Pushover. The former’s place in cinematic history was solidified long ago, whereas the latter is ‘the other’ MacMurray noir that adheres the same plot outline. It would be a shame to overlook it entirely however, as director Quine and his cast give it everything they have, injecting effective suspense via game performances and a bevy of maddeningly ill-timed events that continuously force Paul and Lona to rethink their strategy. A pushover this film is not.