It’s tempting to make more of Pushover (1954) than this tawdry film noir about a cop (Fred MacMurray) gone bad deserves. After all, many of the very best noirs were wretchedly low-budget affairs. Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is the nadir’s apex, a weird and compelling masterpiece of aesthetic impoverishment. Other examples are plentiful, from Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) to Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). The climax of The Big Combo, for example, is shrouded in fog to hide an absence of sets. Mann and Lewis were aided immeasurably by the astonishing chiaroscuro camera work of John Alton. Pushover isn’t stylistically in this league. Lester White’s cinematography overall has the flattened look of 1950s television cop shows. On the other hand, there’s an effective and evocative use of rain-slick city (and backlot) streets.
It’s equally tempting to make more of the fact that the role of mobster’s moll Lona McLane is played by 21-year-old Kim Novak in her film debut. The character, unfortunately, is underwritten with murky motivations. She’s eager to ditch her bank robbing boyfriend, but we’re never convinced that she could inhabit such a world to begin with, much less lure MacMurray into double-crossing the boyfriend and grabbing his loot. A reluctant femme fatale, in other words, curiously upstaged by the more recognizably “good” woman in the film played with confidence and sensuality by Dorothy Malone. Novak hadn’t yet figured out how to make her passivity alluring and mysterious and maddeningly erotic to the collective male psyche. Hitchcock’s Vertigo was four years in the future, as was Bell, Book and Candle (directed by Pushover’s Richard Quine).
Pushover is Fred MacMurray’s film. He’s great at portraying a kind of Ron Burgundy denial in the face of disaster, especially when ill-conceived plans begin to crumble and the flop-sweat flows. There’s clearly an intended referential link between his role here as corrupt cop Paul Sheridan and his role a decade earlier as corrupt insurance salesman Walter Neff in Billy Wilder’s classic 1944 film noir, Double Indemnity. In both films we get to watch MacMurray’s rapid slide from disaffected schlub to calculating schlub to murderous schlub, desperately overreaching every step of the way. Double Indemnity was no cheap B-film, however. It was a well-financed top of the bill studio hit with an A-list cast that included Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, both of whom have a field day stealing scenes from Fred MacMurray. But to today’s noir-accustomed eyes it’s easy to see that MacMurray carries the film by refusing to stray from the genre’s narrow hardboiled constraints. MacMurray is Neff. And, in Pushover, ten years older and beginning to crack under the middle-aged weight of quiet desperation, MacMurray is Sheridan.
Sure, Robert Mitchum got played for a sucker by plenty of dames—notably Faith Domergue in Where Danger Lives (1950) and Jean Simmons in Angel Face (1952)—but somehow Mitchum always retained his masculinity and dignity. Not so MacMurray. It’s almost as if Neff and Sheridan were being punished for presuming to assert themselves at all. We want to avert our eyes from MacMurray’s unseemly demise at the conclusion to Pushover. Not out of sympathy, but rather disdain for his contemptible failure. Television and Disney movies would soon make Fred MacMurray comfortable and wealthy portraying unassertive fathers and harmless eccentrics, characters unencumbered by the kinds of petty aspirations and awkward passions that kept Walter Neff and Paul Sheridan—and America’s legions of losers—awake at night.