The popular line on Pushover is that it’s a lukewarm reheat of classic noir leftovers, sporting a formulaic and staid plot and sleepwalking performances from the leads. Which is of course nonsense. If it isn’t, this dish was meant to be served lukewarm.
Pushover was directed by Richard Quine and starred Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak in her first credited role (she was a model in an uncredited role in The French Line earlier in 1954). Smaller roles went to Philip Carey, E.G. Marshall, and Dorothy Malone, who won an Oscar two years later for Written on the Wind.
MacMurray plays a bored cop leading a stake-out trying to capture a bank robber named Harry Wheeler who killed a security guard during the robbery and made off with a whole bunch of money (one of my habits while watching old movies is calculating inflation in current figures). The bait for Wheeler is Kim Novak, who plays his girlfriend. MacMurray and Novak fall in love and hatch a scheme to get rid of Wheeler and make off with the money from the robbery. Being made in the Code era, things go awry and they get their comeuppance.
It’s true the film does nothing at all original, but it hits so many of my favorite notes from the classic noir genre I can’t help but love it. I can imagine audiences having been bored with it at the time, but looking back now and seeing it with the patina of age it’s a wonderful representation of a particular brand of noir.
The dialogue related to the plot is pulpy but efficient, with lots of well-trodden police-isms peppered throughout. Around the edges though are a surprising number of clever lines and exchanges, especially for Novak’s femme fatale Lona McLane. When Novak gets hit on by a low-life in a bar, the following exchange takes place before she intentionally spills her drink on him and walks away.
Man in bar: “Haven’t you met me before?”
Lona: “Hundreds of times.”
Man: “I don’t get it.”
Lona: “And you won’t, so beat it.”
Visually the film is quietly lovely. The streets and cars are drenched in Hollywood rain, even though it’s rarely actually raining. Neon signs light the streets. Pedestrian-looking sedans and coupes play beautifully on a modern screen, glistening with beaded rain on waxed sheetmetal.
Pushover might be the only film I can think of in which I proactively like Fred MacMurray. I’ve never been quite sure if I loathe him, or if he just plays loathesome characters very well. His corrupt-because-there’s-nothing-else-to-do cop Paul Sheridan here is unpleasant, but MacMurray plays him perfectly. His line readings are just that and nothing more, and they give the appropriate sense of malaise to this character. Joseph Cotten would have brought way too much gravity and internal struggle to this role. MacMurray is the perfect soulless sadsack for Paul Sheridan.
The performances all around are pretty drowsy, but the gloss of time turns these foggy scenes into a dreamlike walk through a Hollywood era that pumped movies like Pushover out as quickly and cheaply as it could. The steamy streets, curvy automobiles, and sedated MacMurray and Novak deliveries create a movie that feels more like how we think of noir in our minds than how it usually plays on screen. It’s a distilled time capsule of noir conventions, and a delightful film for a lazy Saturday morning.