"Introducing Kim Novak." What else do you need to know? After a short stint as "Miss Deepfreeze," a spokeswoman-character for a refrigerator company, the 21-year old aspiring actress and future Vertigo ice goddess was snatched up by Harry Cohn and immediately plunked down in a starring role in 1954's Pushover. The film, which was screened last week as part of Film Forum's ongoing B-Noir festival, is best described as a re-imagining of the popular Double Indemnity story. In the original, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck conspired to defraud an insurance company. Their ace in the hole was that MacMurray was an insurance man himself, and thought he could game the system. In Pushover, MacMurray and Novak conspire to double-cross a thief who's just knocked over a bank. Their ace in the hole is that MacMurray is a bank robbery detective, and thinks he can game the system. Novak plays the bank robber's girlfriend, tucked away in a posh apartment and waiting patiently for her man to breeze back into town. MacMurray and his partner Rick (Phil Carey) watch her every move from a stakeout nest in a motel across the street. Rick is initially skeptical that the bank robber would take the chance of coming back into town with all that money, just to pick up his girlfriend. Then he raises his binoculars and looks across the way at Novak for the first time: "Yep, he'll show up."
The Edward G. Robinson character from Double Indemnity, the "old crab" who serves as a father figure and is constantly on the verge of figuring out MacMurray's scheme, is cleaved in two for this film. We have a father figure character played by Allen Nourse, an amiable old drunk who messes up a major operation and counts on MacMurray's loyalty to keep him from getting fired, and we have Rick, who is subconsciously onto the scheme for most of the film, but can't bring his mind around to believing it. Rick is also distracted by a pretty young nurse who lives in the apartment next to Novak -- he spies on her at will from the stakeout nest and tries to screw up the courage (and unprofessionalism) to go over and introduce himself to her. As Rick is concentrating on the nurse, MacMurray makes up various excuses throughout the night to go and have clandestine meetings with Novak, so they can discuss exactly what to do when the boyfriend bank robber shows up. The boyfriend's plan for returning to scoop up Novak is simple: he will call her and identify himself as a television ratings surveyor. When he asks what show she watched on television last night, she has to answer "I didn't watch television last night" if the coast is clear. If she says "CSI: Miami" or anything like that, it's a signal for him to stay away.
The binocular-eye-view technique employed in the film, swishing back and forth from action in one apartment to action in another apartment, feels a little like Rear Window at times. It's the only innovative camera technique on the menu, though. For the most part, Pushover's camerawork is stationary and blah, and it doesn't even really start jumping when Novak is on screen, which is surprising. There must have been a flurry of notes between Columbia Pictures and director Richard Quine about how to maximize coverage of the studio's new hot property, but you'd never know it from the final result. Perplexing, really, since Quine was no pushover. He directed not only the entertaining Bell, Book and Candle, but also Paris - When It Sizzles and Sex and the Single Girl, all vehicles for showing off A-list actresses in the best possible lighting. The man knew how to cover the waterfront. Maybe he was put off by Novak's chilly demeanor and stiff posture, which would be used to such great effect in Vertigo later, or maybe he thought she was just some flash in the pan who didn't warrant the effort. Whatever the reason, Novak buffs may be put off by the extent to which she is short-changed by the camera in this film.
It would be a meaningless exercise to compare and contrast Pushover with the film that inspired it. Compared to Double Indemnity, Pushover doesn't even have a screenplay, let alone a good one. The moment to moment piano-wire tension of the duels between MacMurray and Stanwyck don't exist in this film, and aren't even really attempted. There's no threat from Novak's character -- no sense of coiled danger. There's also no question about who is in the driver's seat. Every time Novak says something sassy, MacMurray dips her head back and kisses her like he's giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, in order to shut her up. Overall, it's a film of limited ambition. There are lots of things it could have gotten right but didn't, for whatever reason. But it does contain tense moments, wiseguy exchanges and enough beats in the key of noir to make it a perfect centerpiece for a B-Noir festival. The film's signature line comes early on when MacMurray and Novak are tip-toeing around the issue of how she lives and what she really thinks about her bank robber boyfriend. How does she feel about being the go-to girl for a low-life hold-up man who robs people for a living? Does she feel guilty about spending dirty money? "Money isn't dirty," she says with a sparkle in her freezing-temperature eyes. "Only people."