2018 Film Essays

Seeing Double: Richard Quine’s ‘Pushover’

Richard Quine’s 1954 thriller Pushover stars Fred MacMurray as a straight arrow who gets sucked into a deadly get-rich-quick scheme by an icy blonde. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially an echo of the classic 1944 noir Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder), which also starred MacMurray as a straight arrow who gets sucked into a deadly get-rich-quick scheme by an icy blonde. As a largely disregarded noir B-side, Pushover deliberately recalls its more famous predecessor, playing upon audience expectations of MacMurray’s screen persona to create an experience of déjà vu.

MacMurray’s Paul Sheridan is a police lieutenant asked to help entrap a bank robber through his girlfriend, Lona McClane (Kim Novak). After an initial romantic interlude between the cop and the thief’s girl, a setup by the police so Sheridan can get close to her, the two hatch a plan to bump off the crook and swipe the money. The tense hours while they wait for the thief to show up at Lona’s apartment play out against the backdrop of a police stakeout, with Sheridan and his fellow officers holed up in an apartment across the street, watching her place through the window and listening to the wiretap they’ve placed on the phone line. At the film’s conclusion, Sheridan gives himself away and is gunned down in the streets by his partner, while Lona is led off to jail. 

The echoes of Double Indemnity are unmistakable. Sheridan, like Walter Neff (also MacMurray) in Wilder’s film, bucks the system he is sworn to uphold — law enforcement in Pushover, and insurance claims in Double Indemnity. MacMurray’s characters share a close relationship with a colleague in each film — Detective Rick MacAllister (Phil Carey) in Pushover, and claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity. Hanging over both performances is the sense that MacMurray, who prior to his murderous turn in Wilder’s film had never played such a heel on screen before, is a nice, ordinary working man gone bad, driven by a long-repressed impulse towards darkness, lust and greed. In Double Indemnity, Walter bats away Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) intimations of insurance fraud so quickly and thoroughly that it’s clear he’s spent plenty of idle moments thinking about it himself. When he agrees to go along with her plot, he brings precision, calculation and merciless invention to the table, his planning rendered in voice over during which he doesn’t even try to conceal his pride. As the title Pushover suggests, it doesn’t take much more to get Sheridan to jump off the ledge than Walter. Almost immediately, he’s thinking about what it might be like to have the money, have the woman and go on the run, far from the humdrum life of the police lieutenant’s position for which he has no passion. In both films, MacMurray’s characters wear their ordinariness like a mask; their banality suggests loyalty to higher ideals, but it also hides their eager betrayal of those same ideals. It is their simplicity, their quintessential all-American maleness, which allows them to take advantage of the willful blindness of their fellow men. 

And yet, the experience of these two films is vastly different, mitigated by the 10-year gap in their release dates, but also, the presence of Double Indemnity, and Walter Neff, in Pushover’s Paul Sheridan. At the time of Double Indemnity’s release in 1944, MacMurray’s dark turn, culminating in his near gleeful execution of Phyllis, his lover and crime partner, in blistering close-up, carries the element of surprise. At that moment, MacMurray’s screen persona had scarcely no hint of darkness — lots of romantic leads and lawyers. He played both in 1940’s Remember the Night, the story of a prosecutor (MacMurray) and his sympathy for a beautiful shoplifter played by Stanwyck. He lets her off the hook, and they fall in love. It’s profoundly disorienting to watch, especially with images of the far more iconic and important Double Indemnity, also starring this pair, floating through cinema history. It’s as if Remember the Night represents an alternative version of the lives of two people, where the love that blossoms between them after the petty larceny meet-cute loosens him up and redeems her. Instead, in the darkest timeline of Double Indemnity, they shoot each other to death over a little money.

Though still true today to a certain extent, this is the way that screen persona worked in the classic Hollywood era when studios micromanaged how their stars were used, and the performers themselves, working on multi-film contracts, tried to balance their artistic impulses with their need for financial security. At the time of Double Indemnity, the role of Walter Neff was a risk for MacMurray, whose nice guy image might be seriously imperiled by his new role as a thief and multiple murderer. Instead, the opposite happened. MacMurray’s best roles all feel a little like Walter; his cynical, shallow Lt. Keefer in The Caine Mutiny (1954, Edward Dmytryk) becomes something of a secondary villain to Humphrey Bogart’s tyrannical Captain Queeg; MacMurray’s silky executive Jeff Sheldrake in The Apartment (1960), also for Wilder, is moral rot personified, his cool indifference to his mistress’s (Shirley MacLaine) suicide attempt contrasted with Jack Lemmon’s befuddled hero’s real concern for her. In each, the characters’ slimy interior hides inside a smooth, outer shell of slick, black hair and a million-dollar smile that connects two cushy cheeks. 

But the character that most recalls Walter Neff, because he’s nearly a reincarnation of him, is Pushover’s Sheridan. One of Double Indemnity’s most iconic moments comes early in the film in an exchange of dialogue between Phyllis and Walter, as they start to feel each other out. He’s dropped by her house to sell her husband some insurance, and she’s rebuffed him. He shamelessly hits on her, but she gives it right back in a series of double entendres about speeding. Phyllis warns him: “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.” Walter shoots back: “How fast was I going, officer?” Phyllis: “I’d say around 90.” The dialogue turns more aggressively sexual, at least to the brink of what was allowable by the Hollywood Production Code, when Phyllis tells him, “Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles,” and he responds, “Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.” The scene crackles, each smirking at the other to signal the yawning gap between their words, screaming no, and their desires, screaming yes. 

In Pushover, after the cold open bank robbery that starts the story in motion and the opening credits, Novak’s Lona walks out of a movie theatre and into a dark parking lot. She gets behind the wheel of her car and tries to start it, but it sputters. A voice comes out of the dark: “I think you flooded it,” it says. Sheridan, wearing MacMurray’s shining smile, appears in the window of her car. He tries to help her get it going, but can’t do it. He tells her, “I don’t think you’re getting any spark.” She looks at him, her eyes burning with desire, and purrs, “I’m not?,” her voice equal parts breath and sound. Soon they’re sharing drinks in a bar and then, back in his apartment in a post-coital reverie signaled by Lona’s entrance from the back bedroom, straightening her belt. 

The reversal that comes next, after a fade to black, is that Sheridan is a police officer and the car stunt, along with the tryst that followed, was a con on Lona, meant to draw out information about her crooked boyfriend. The shadowed, piercing spires of a barred window push their way onto the wall in the police captain’s office when Sheridan walks in, the threat of imprisonment or death looming from the film’s first act; before Sheridan has even decided to go over, he’s already gone, he just doesn’t know it yet.

As the stakeout escalates, and Sheridan must conspire with Lona right under his partner’s nose without arousing suspicion, much of the conflict shifts inside two spaces — one is the stakeout room, where Sheridan and MacAllister watch Lona from across the street. The other is Lona’s apartment building; inside her room; on the roof where the two lovers can hide and speak candidly; or in the hallways and stairwells of the complex where shadows fall. These moments, as Paul and Lona huddle either alone or together just around corners, recall a crucial spike in tension from Double Indemnity, a moment in Walter’s apartment hallway when Phyllis hides behind an open door from the unexpected presence of Keyes. In that moment, Wilder silently communicates the frightening possibility of discovery through precise editing; a close-up on Phyllis’ hand subtly pulling on the doorknob to tell Walter she’s concealed there, then a close-up on Walter as he registers the hint, but keeps it hidden from Keyes, prattling on about his suspicions at the end of the hall, waiting for the elevator. In Pushover, the hallways, the stairs, the roof, together create a labyrinth of settled city space, a maze from which Lona and Paul won’t escape.        

The endless critical debate over noir — “Is it a genre? A style? A feeling?” — leans too heavily on the importance of categorization. Of course noir is a genre. By 1954, when Pushover is released, its narrative moves are deliberately telegraphed as clearly indebted to Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Tay Garnett), and numerous other examples of the murder-plot-gone-awry story. There are the lustful embraces of the romantic leads, tight close-ups communicating all the heat the Production Code won’t allow, their passions driving them to murder. The legal and moral tightropes, the bristling tension as the scheming lovers risk discovery or finally work up the nerve to pull the trigger — all are markers, the way that genres ultimately offer a sense that viewers have been here before, driving down a dark highway at night, the faint outlines of landmarks and roadside signs just visible beyond the throw of the headlights. 

But noir is also certainly a style. Look at The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945, Albert Lewin), invested fully with all the tropes of classic Hollywood romanticism, its costume drama trappings, its period settings, its upper crust accents and flowery dialogue. The film also contains a mid-point murder scene in an attic, lit by a swinging chandelier, which the men struggling over a knife knock into, setting a series of bouncing shadows flying off the walls. Two years later, director Edward Dmytryk would do the same thing in a more traditionally representative noir, Crossfire (1947), wherein an anti-Semitic soldier (Robert Ryan) bumps off a witness to his earlier killing of a Jewish serviceman in a dingy upstairs apartment, the mood of the murder set by a swinging electric light overhead. As a style, noir found many homes in many films of the post-war Hollywood era.

The films feel like noir because the people who made them felt noir. The terrifying sense of dislocation that followed in the wake of the calamity of World War II seeped into the marrow of those picking through the rubble around the globe. But noir lived long after its supposed funeral with Touch of Evil (Orson Welles) in 1958. It became neo-noir in the late 1960s and 1970s, when New Hollywood’s self-conscious genre commentary revived more noir than any other, losing hope on the cynical streets of Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski), giving a detective The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman) and slipping inside the troubled mind of an alienated Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese). 

As neo-noir entrenched itself as a genre, style and feeling of its own, modern filmmakers repurposed those films into something that might be called neon-noir. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) points deliberately to the neo-noirs of the 1970s and 1980s like Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1986). Though the chiaroscuro lighting of classic Hollywood noir, or the “black-and-white in color” cinematography of Gordon Willis and his fellow 70s lens-men would not totally disappear, they were supplemented by the synthetic hum of neon lights, their pinks and greens now just as much at home in the noir universe as a slatted set of blinds casting shadows across a morally dubious character. Even more self-conscious genre commentary blossoms, sometimes leaving these films vulnerable to charges of all style and no substance remarkable only for their shallowness. 

Always, there is the sense that we have been here before. That we know these roads, these turns, these nights. So too the protagonists of these films, who ought to know better by now, find themselves riding down those same midnight streets, making the same bad decisions, gunning the engine at the same wrong curve and ending up turned over and bleeding in the same ditch, wheels spinning, glass raining down. The perfect murder is anything but. The big score blows up bigger. The faraway dream turns into a clear and present nightmare. 

That is the essence of Pushover. As a reworking of its decade-before predecessor, Quine’s film creates a 93-minute doom loop, in which Paul Sheridan (nee Walter Neff) almost seems to have woken up, like Tom Cruise’s Cage in the 2014 thriller Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman), destined to repeat the same story again and again, when only death awaits. Imagine the end of Double Indemnity, with Walter slumped in the doorway of his insurance office, down more than a little blood from the bullet wound in his chest, having confessed the murder plot into a Dictaphone, overhead by his friend and mentor Keyes. They share a final, ritualistic cigarette as each processes Walter’s betrayal of everything the two men thought they believed, before the credits close, as Walter presumably slips into darkness.

Then, he wakes up in Pushover, reborn as Paul Sheridan, a police lieutenant in 1954, a trusted investigator on a robbery case. A reincarnated man with a second chance, this time given the opportunity to face temptation and laugh in its face and follow through on his institutional responsibility to the police, where he failed the insurance company. And he fails, once again, spectacularly and ignominiously, riddled with bullets on a dark street by a car with a trunk full of money just out of his reach.  

This is not fan theory, “what-if-these-two-things-are-actually-one-thing-and-it-will-blow-your-mind” clickbait. This is the way that noir, taken in totality, can work when its individual films are read in reaction to one another. Pushover so clearly restages Double Indemnity that it calls attention to the 10-year period between their release dates, offering a bitter, cynical reading of its central, MacMurray-filled character. Ten years gone, and this kind of man, has not changed one bit. Many, though not all, noir films are preoccupied with time. Look no further than the non-linear structure that dominates so many of its finest examples —Double Indemnity, The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak), Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur). The non-linear narrative makes the consequences of their characters’ actions known, investing them with the air of inevitability. Ole “The Swede” Andersen (Burt Lancaster) surrenders to death at the outset of The Killers, offering only a cryptic “I did something wrong… once” to explain his refusal to flee the dingy hotel room where he’ll die moments later.                         

The futility that suffuses The Swede’s line in the opening of The Killers is core to noir and speaks to the value of lesser known films like Pushover, which is easy to dismiss as a half-hearted Double Indemnity retread banking on audiences’ familiarity with MacMurray in the role of a straight man gone crooked. He is doomed in Pushover because he was doomed in Double Indemnity; the men and women who ride through the blackness of the American nightmare are always fated to crack up. In contrast to Double Indemnity, Pushover is less visually interesting, and has fewer iconic lines, and has inspired far fewer pages of critical discourse by an order of magnitude. And yet, when Pushover is seen in concert with Double Indemnity, the two films together speak to larger currents that run through the whole of noir from its inception (whenever that is) to its modern iterations (whatever they may be). The two films are linked together by the uniting presence of star Fred MacMurray, who carries the sense of déjà vu in his every step, every facial expression, every world-weary line of dialogue. Underneath his performance, there is always the sense of doubt; in Double Indemnity, Walter, 10 years younger, believed they’d get away with it. Paul Sheridan, 10 years older, doesn’t seem so convinced. He’s been here before. 

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.