If Phyllis Dietrichson had really loved Walter Neff, you might have a movie somewhat like Pushover, with a dash of Rear Window just for good measure. Pushover is more than just an imitation, but it is impossible to watch without making comparisons. Pushover is a B film noir. It’s not great, not perfect, but interesting in its own way.
The movie also marks the official debut of Kim Novak. It wasn’t her first movie, but as the credits say, it was “introducing Kim Novak.” The film also stars Fred MacMurray ten years after a similar role in Double Indemnity.
After a bank robbery that ends with the murder of one of the bank guards, the police know the identity of one of the two robbers, Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). Their only lead on him, however, is a woman they believe is his girlfriend, Lona McLane (Kim Novak). To make sure she really is Wheeler’s girlfriend, though, they have cop Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) get to know her and afterwards the police, including Sheridan, set up a stakeout on Lona’s apartment, waiting for Wheeler to show up. They tap her phone, follow her everywhere she goes and rent the apartment across from hers so that they can spy on her movements.
This is where the Rear Window elements come into play. The police are basically hanging around the apartment, watching her through a pair of binoculars. But of course, not only can they see Lona, but the other people who live in the apartments next to Lona, including a pretty nurse, Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone). The police are watching Lona in shifts, two in the day and two at night. They expect Wheeler to show up at night so they put their best cops on the job during that time: Paul Sheridan and his partner, Rick McAllister (Philip Carey). Paul and Rick are very different guys, however. They both come from a poor background, but while Rick’s parents loved each other despite the lack of money, Paul says his parents fought all the time about money. His conclusion is that though money alone wouldn’t make you happy, it is still necessary. He is also strongly attracted to Lona. Rick, on the other hand, thinks she’s just another broad and finds himself drawn to the pretty nurse in the room next to Lona, who he keeps watching instead of Lona.
But Lona is not an idiot. She figures out that Paul was a cop all along and one night, while Paul is tailing her, she drives to his house. He gets out of the car and she asks him for an explanation. He admits being a cop and she admits that Wheeler is her boyfriend, though she maintains that she did not know he was a crook. She then suggests that since Wheeler is a murderer, it wouldn’t really matter too much in the long run if Paul were to somehow get the money. When he accuses her of being willing to use Wheeler’s dirty money she replies, “Money isn’t dirty, just people.” Of course Paul says no, but just as in Double Indemnity, you know he’s going to kick the idea around and eventually do exactly as she asks. And just as in Double Indemnity, he’ll do all the planning (Fred MacMurray really should keep away from scheming blondes).
Where Pushover is different from Double Indemnity is that while Phyllis Dietrichson (as played by Barbara Stanwyck) is a murderous psychopath who, despite claims to the contrary, never really cared for Walter Neff, Kim Novak’s Lona does care for Paul. It’s not entirely clear until the end, but there are enough clues to make the ending make sense. After all, although Paul meant to pick up Lona at the beginning of the film, Lona practically picked him up instead. She saw something in him she liked. Many people have commented that it is not believable that she would have fallen for craggy Fred MacMurray, but I disagree.
She said she noticed him in the movie theater and wondered why he was alone. I think she saw something in him, something that resonated with her. They’re both alike, lonely, dissatisfied and bitter with life, wanting things they don’t have. They understand each other. They fill a hole in each other’s lives; they need each other. They just think they need money, too. It’s rather tragic when, after everything’s fallen apart and Paul finds that Lona did not leave him, he realizes, “We didn’t really need that money, did we?”
One problem with Pushover is that it loses steam after Paul has committed the crime (he shoots Wheeler). Unlike Double Indemnity, which derives all its tension from watching how the crime is committed and how the two criminals subsequently self-destruct, there is not much tension after the murder. Everything starts to go wrong for him instantly and you know he is toast the moment the nurse sees him in Lona’s apartment. MacMurray does an admirable job playing a desperate man whose plans are going increasingly more awry and who finds himself resorting to crimes beyond his original intention, but the tension in the script is just not there anymore.
Fred MacMurray is a very fine actor with an under-appreciated range. He is today best remembered for his Disney films like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog and also for being the foil in many a screwball comedy with Carol Lombard and Claudette Colbert; but he could also play weak, smarmy or un-principled men. I’d always heard of MacMurray’s three heel roles – Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment – but I think we could add Pushover to the list, although it is his most sympathetic heel. You almost wish he and Kim Novak could make a new life together (without the money), but alas his principles are not strong enough.