Having watched Kim Novak more or less melt down despite the nurturance of TCM host/interviewer Robert Osborne some months back, I was surprised she popped up at the Oscars (with the gallant Matthew McConaughey getting her through their gig). Along with Goldie Hawn and John Travolta, Novak was in contention for the tightest facelift competition on the 60th anniversary of her first starring role.
“Introducing Kim Novak” is how Columbia pilled the former Marilyn Novak in the opening credits of “Pushover,” though the movie was not actually her first. Having watched it again, I am not certain if the “pushover” was Novak’s or the cop whose greed turns him bad, Burbank police detective Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurrray). I don’t think that it can be the opening bank robbery in which a guard is killed. I think the alternate title – “The Killer Wore a Badge” – is better, albeit pulpier.
After the heist, Lona McLane, who is quite chicly dressed for going to a movie alone (and will also be when home alone through most of the rest of the movie), is unable to start her car. Paul comes to her rescue (having disabled the vehicle in the first place), takes her to a bar to wait for a mechanic from an all-night garage (those were the days!) to fix her car, and then takes her home to wait. She acknowledges having noticed him in the theater. At least according to the script, they click, though to me it is more the feral opportunist in MacMurray and the passivity of Novak that constitutes their romance.
Paul is soon in charge of a stakeout in an apartment opposite Lona’s. His partner in the stakeout Rick McAllister (Phillip Carey), is enchanted by a nurse, Ann Stewart (Dorothy Malone with dark hair), in the apartment next to Lona’s. (Despite their being apartments across a courtyard, neither woman usually closes the curtains in her apartment.) Eventually, Rick helps her ward off some unwanted advances in the elevator lobby. (When she suggests she should learn some of the techniques, he sourly suggests taking greater care about male company so that such techniques would not be necessary). After simulating outrage and remarks on having felt guilty about using her before seeing how she was trying to use him, Paul (turning on a dime) takes charge of the plot to get rid of her boyfriend and get the money for themselves, double-crossing the robber(/killer), Harry (Paul Richards), who set her up in her apartment and bought her the mink coat she wore to the movie theater (remember, this is LA, though a very wet-looking one in this movie). Paul is chronically broke, and half of the stolen $210,000 sounds good to him. (BTW, the second man in the holdup never appears again nor is he identified.)
In a 1954 Hollywood movie, any such plot was doomed, but there is suspense and noir photography to grease the slide to failure. And as Bernard Hermann would do for Novak(‘s) character in “Vertigo,” Arthur Morton provided her (character) plaintive theme music in “Pushover.” Lona is not as money-driven as MacMurray’s partner in crime, Barbara Stanwyck, was in “Double Indemnity,” but so fixated on the need to get the money that he thinks he needs to get her (and/or) so drives since childhood to make good in financial terms, Paul only hears Lona’s “It doesn’t matter,” too late for either of them. The streets are rain-slicked, both watchers and watched smoke one cigarette after another, MacMurray does a good job of looking devious and ready for a fall, Novak projects a passive innocence just beneath the hard-boiled moll surface shown in discouraging being hit on in a bar. I was most amazed by the matter-of-fact warrantless search of her apartment by Rick and their commander (E. G. Marshall with more hair than in anything I’ve seen him).
Stakeouts have stretches of boredom, and some of that is shared with the viewer, but for those seeking a noir experience, “Pushover” is a satisfying port of call. Also, Dorothy Malone showed she could turn on the wholesome girl-next-door charm. Marshall was more staid than Edward G. Robinson closing in on McMurray-gone-bad in “Double Indemnity.” In that earlier film, it was the femme fatale (Stanwyck) who drew him into crime. In “Pushover,” it is the money more than the dame that motivates him. This time, the male uses the woman more than he is used by her. And there is no love-hate relationship: she rather straightforwardly (if catastrophically for her) loves him.
I don’t think Novak had a lot of range as an actress, but as a beautiful woman close to despair (usually at being regarded as a sex object, though not herein) she was good. And even 60 years ago, the tight skin of her face did not move much.
“Pushover” is one of five on the collection “Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II” with no bonus features relating to “Pushover.” The standouts in it are Jacque Tournier’s “Nightfall” and Fritz Lang’s “Human Desire.”