Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Noir City XVII #4: The Absent-Minded Confessor

by Odie "Odienator" Henderson

Fred MacMurray's acting career has lived as double a life as one can find here in Noir City. Who among us of a certain age (let's go with my age--48) doesn't remember being introduced to good ol' Fred courtesy of reruns of his sitcom My Three Sons or airings of The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber on The Wonderful World of Disney? In those features, Mr. MacMurray was so nice! Lord, he was lovey-dovey! 

And then you see Double Indemnity for the first time. Or The Apartment. And then you realize that Fred MacMurray's career is a retelling of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. Which side you like better says a lot about you! As for good ol' Fred, he proved equally adept at sunshine and darkness. But you know which side I'm here for today.

I try to give these pieces pulpy, faux noirish titles, but I'll never be as good nor as succinct as the real thing. Monday night brought us a 35-mm double-bill of corrupt cop capers, each brilliantly monikered by their filmmakers. It's 1954 in Noir City, and its denizens were treated to the aptly titled Pushover. Our pal, Fred MacMurray fits the description, and how could you blame him? The dame doin' the pushin' is none other than Kim Novak making her screen debut! Every Hollywood studio needed their dangerous blonde, and since the Columbia logo wasn't willing to ditch that torch and dye her hair, Harry Cohn got himself Ms. Novak.

MacMurray and Novak are joined by Phil Carey, the good cop to MacMurray's oh-so-bad cop. The police are after a criminal named Harry Wheeler (Paul Richards) who, in the film's opening sequence, robs a bank of $210,000. Richards adds murder to his wanted poster by shooting the bank's security guard. When Richards and the money disappear, police chief E.G. Marshall assigns Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) and his partner Rick McAllister (Carey) to the case.

Sheridan's first order of business is to go undercover with Wheeler's moll, Lona McClane (Novak, of course). They Meet Cute after a superbly lensed sequence by cinematographer Lester White tails McClane as she walks from a movie theater to her car. Her car has been tampered with by Sheridan,  we'll learn later, so he could assist her. When the car needs servicing at an all-night garage (say what?!), Sheridan offers to entertain McLane in a more intimate setting. "Your place or mine?" he asks.

"Surprise me," she says. (The audience ate this line up!)

McLane is not unfamiliar with dealing with wolves out to use her. So it comes as no surprise that she pegs Sheridan for a cop. What she doesn't know, at least initially, is that Sheridan and McAllister are right across the way from her apartment every night, looking into her window to see when or if Wheeler will turn up at her place. But Sheridan spills the beans eventually. You see, McLane puts a bee in his boxers about knocking off Wheeler, taking the stolen loot and running off to a future that is rated at least a hard R on the MPAA ratings scale. Since MacMurray did NOT learn his lesson from that other sinister blonde Phyllis Dietrichson, he agrees to McLane's deal. "I thought I was using you!" he laments. In that department, Sheridan is out of his league.

As Sheridan bides his time, an interesting side plot develops during these stakeouts. McAllister becomes smitten with McLane's next door neighbor. And how could he not be--she's played by the incredible Dorothy Malone! Malone's very good as a nurse who is completely oblivious to what's going on, but she'll get involved in more ways than one. In fact, her character Ann Stewart has a Meet-Not-So-Cute with Sheridan that becomes a major plot point later on. Her budding romance with McAllister is a nice, though equally voyeuristic counterpoint to the corrupt one going on next door.

If some of this sounds familiar to you, you've probably seen John Badham's 1987 comedy, Stakeout, which robs several plot points from Roy Huggins' excellent script. If Huggins' name rings a bell, you've probably seen The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, Baretta or any number of other TV shows he either created or wrote for over his illustrious career. This man knew how to write a crime story, and while Pushover goes where we expected it to go, it gets there in a very clever and entertaining fashion. Hell, even Jean-Luc Godard liked it!

"We didn't need the money," McLane cries at the end of Pushover, figuratively pushing her fingers into the bullet holes of the sadder but wiser Sheridan. In the immortal words of Ice-T, Paul Sheridan, you played yourself. 

Dante wasn't the only one putting numbers on layers of Hell. Noir City legend Ida Lupino was doing it too back in 1954! Private Hell 36 stars Lupino, who co-wrote it with her business partner and (by this time) ex-husband Collier Young. We've got another corrupt cop and a bundle o'cash to contend with here, but this time, the woman is a far more innocent party than he is. Lupino's nightclub performer Lily Marlowe becomes embroiled in a cop stakeout after she unwittingly handles some marked bills that were involved in a bank robbery. Since she can identify the man who gave them to her, the LAPD drags her along to the racetrack so she can pick him out. This takes a while, but she eventually gets her man, pointing him out to LA detective Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran).

After an exciting police car chase and crash, Bruner steals wads of cash from the deceased criminals' take. His partner Jack Farnham (Howard Duff, Lupino's current husband at the time) is unwillingly drawn into this plan. Bruner's theft is a rather improbable one--the money is marked and couldn't be spent in America without eventually being traced--but Bruner has a plan to sell it in Mexico. Lest I forget, Bruner has also fallen for Marlowe, whom he thinks will be impressed with his riches. Bruner hides the money in a rented trailer numbered 36.

Marlowe has her own ideas on what constitutes success, and they all involve legality and making it on one's own. But Bruner has even bigger problems: Farnham is a family man whose fears of losing his wife and kids weigh heavily on him now that he's involved in Bruner's scheme. Farnham's wife is played by Dorothy Malone, who did double duty on Monday's double bill. Young and Lupino script a very good party sequence involving the four leads, with crackling dialogue and an almost suffocating sence of guilt emanating off Farnham. He truly is in a private hell and Duff milks that for all it's worth.

In addition to her acting career, Ida Lupino worked behind the camera as a director and producer (her film company, The Filmakers, has a title coined by Lupino). But Private Hell 36 was directed by a young Don Siegel. Siegel's talents are on full display in this early feature, made two years before he'd helm the paranoia classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There's a gnawing sense of claustrophobia in Private Hell 36 that only hints at the good things to come from Siegel's talents. 

I love Ida Lupino so much I dressed up just for her before heading to the Castro Theatre. It was worth it.

Next up: Kiss Me Once, Kiss me Twice, Come on Pretty Baby, Kiss me Deadly!
Last time: Noir City XVII #3: Requiem for a Pickpocket

(Credit where it is due: In true Noir fashion, I have stolen the poster art in these dispatches from the Noir City website. Also in true Noir fashion, the coppers won't take me alive!)

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