On leaving a movie theatre sultry Lola McLane (Kim Novak) has trouble starting her car. So Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray) saunters over offering to help. They leave the car with a mechanic and spend the evening together at a bar. Which goes well enough Lola accompanies Paul back to his apartment. The next day Paul and his partner Rick McCallister (Phil Carey) report to their superior, Lieutenant Eckstrom (E.G. Marshall). For Paul is actually a cop assigned to trail Lola in order to catch her bank-robbing boyfriend Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards). At least that is the plan. It is not long though before both Lola and a stolen $250,000 start to look awfully tempting to the hard-luck cop.
Interestingly this Fifties film noir crime thriller was adapted from two different novels: Thomas Walsh's 'The Night Watch' and 'Rafferty' by Bill S. Ballinger (also a prolific screenwriter for film, television and radio). Nevertheless critics at the time felt the plot of Pushover skewed too closely to the Raymond Chandler-scripted Billy Wilder-directed noir classic Double Indemnity (1944). Which of course also starred Fred MacMurray. Certainly there are echoes here of MacMurray's earlier role as he once again portrays an antihero who thinks of himself as a sharp operator who knows all the angles. Only to find himself increasingly out of his depth. Yet in terms of style, treatment and tone, Pushover feels like a different kind of noir compared to the Wilder classic. Lester H. White's stark, torn-from-the-headlines style of cinematography leaves less room for that film noir pulp poetry, but suits the brisk storytelling of director Richard Quine. The opening credits play over a tense bank robbery while the second act evolves into a variation on Rear Window (1954) that contrasts Paul's obsession with Lola with Rick's growing infatuation with Ann (Dorothy Malone), the 'nice girl' next door. A subplot that eventually merges with the main thread for a satisfying payoff.
Less ominous with a slightly less jaded view of human behaviour than Double Indemnity, Pushover musters empathy for its morally compromised cop. It also softens its femme fatale character. Kim Novak's smart and perceptive Lola, who figures out Paul is a cop early on, is mercenary enough to latch on to him as a means of escape. Yet the script by Roy Huggins, who went on to create a host of classic TV shows like Maverick, The Fugitive and The Rockford Files, implies Lola's feelings for Paul are genuine and stem from qualities of downtrodden desperation she recognizes in herself. In her first major role Novak's breathless delivery and captivating presence mark her as an obvious star. Although Pushover was a modest success at the box-office it was still a year before Picnic (1955) launched her to true stardom. Novak and Quine were romantically involved but despite a lengthy engagement never actually wed. In fact the couple split shortly after making their last film together, the comedy-mystery The Notorious Landlady (1962).
Having started out as an actor, Quine segued into writing and directing in the early Fifties. Mostly musicals and comedies, many of which were written in partnership with Blake Edwards including a previous film noir, Drive a Crooked Road (1954) starring a hard-boiled Mickey Rooney. Here Quine does a nice job keeping the viewer off-balance, tightening the screws on his doomed duo. Tightly plotted and briskly paced, the film charts Paul's downward spiral in perfunctory albeit absorbing fashion. Where it stumbles slightly is in dwelling excessively Rick and Ann as a saccharine counterpoint to the leads' illicit passion. Ann, who comes complete with her own sugary theme music, practically has a halo hovering permanently above her head. Meanwhile Rick, our ostensible straight arrow, moves from a speech denouncing women as self-serving bitches to eyeballing Ann like a creep. Both come across rather smug and far less affecting than the flawed, desperate protagonists.