Greeting, all and sundry! After giving my cerebrum a well deserved respite which coincided with the release of The Avengers, I’ve decided to dive back in. Taking a hint from Ruth and applying it to the realm of lists while keeping within the arena of classic films and those involved.
To this end, allow me to introduce one of the most talented, yet under rated actors of the past century. Whom many may recognize as a poster boy for Disney during the 1960s and later as television’s proverbial Perfect Dad in My Three Sons. A worthy topic for another time. Though now, I would like to plunge back to the earlier times and films which firmly planted the subject of this dissertation on the Hollywood map while specializing in a specific and memorable type of character.
Fred MacMurray: Superb Louse!
Louses come in all shapes and sizes in film. From Richard Widmark’s Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death or Skip McCoy in Pickup on South Street. Talented, yet invisible people who seem to suffer from a delusional ego. To Peter Lorre, who made a cottage industry out of portraying such countless films. Today, Steve Buscemi would fill that niche comfortably with room to spare!
What makes a ‘Superb Louse’ is the ability to portray someone of lesser or low moral character while also making the character likable and memorable. Within these strict confines, for a brief period in time, Mr. MacMurray ruled the roost. Beginning his sojourn in one of the great classic Film Noirs directed by Billy Wilder:
1. Double Indemnity (1944)
Playing workaday insurance salesman, Walter Neff. Who drops by the home of Phyllis Dietrichson. Silkily and alluringly played by Barbara Stanwyck, to get some final signatures on Mr. Dietrichson’s car policy. Sparks sizzle at first sight. Which evolves into flirtation while negotiating a life insurance policy and its much larger payout for accidental death.
The avalanche begins and it’s too late for the pebbles to vote as Phyllis starts upping the ante. While Walter begins to bend the truth to his partner, Barton Keyes. Brought to low keyed, underplayed life by Edward G. Robinson. Who knows when something just doesn’t look or feel right. MacMurray’s strength is brought to the fore in his straight faced ability to lie and keep two plausible sets of facts straight. While fully aware that he is sinking deeper in deep in Phyllis’s ensnaring web. In a shadowy B&W that begins at the tale’s end and is told in flash backs as a slowly bleeding out Walter tells all into a recording Dictaphone Machine.
2. The Caine Mutiny (1954)
A decade had passed and Mr. MacMurray had the opportunity to pick up those few shiny pebbles to a high gloss for a pivotal supporting role that everyone thinks is a Humphrey Bogart film, but really isn’t. Though he owns the ball bearing assisted plum scene during the Court Martial before the final reel. No, the magic of The Caine Mutiny is that the film is solid ensemble. While the mutineers’ defense council, Lt. Barney Greenwald, magnificently played by Jose Ferrer captures every scene he is in.
That capturing would never have taken place without the connivance of MacMurray’s Lt. Tom Keefer. College man, self proclaimed intellectual and failed playwright. With an over sized ego, subtle condescension to match. Who lazily tolerates the Captain of the Mine Sweeper, Caine while taking fresh faced, young, naive Ensign Willie Keith under his wing. Once the Captain is reassigned to another ship, Keefer’s tolerance melds with wary caution in regard to the ship’s new Captain, Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg. A WWI hold over and very Navy. Who moves at his own speed with his own rules. Unwittingly supplying Keefer with a shopping list of complaints as he draws Van Johnson’s career minded Lt. Steve Maryk into the cabal.
Creating a series of accidents and mishaps that culminate in perhaps, losing the Caine to a tropical Typhoon. Setting the stage for a Court Martial where Keefer’s ego writes checks that can’t be covered. Walking the tight rope of settling perceived scores while tossing Queeg to the wolves and saving his own skin. Queeg is quietly ushered out. The mutineers are acquitted. And later at a celebratory party, Mr. MacMurray’s Keefer is solidly deserving of Lt. Barney Greenwald’s scathing dressing down and challenge to a fight.
3. Pushover (1954)
Ramping it up the sleaze and slime factor about four fold as Robbery Detective Paul Sheridan. Who starts out as honest and straight laced. A bit of of ladies’ man. Tipped to an opening scene bank robbery where people are killed and the robber, Harry Wheeler, fleetingly played by Paul Richards, escapes. Sheridan deftly disables the possible getaway car owned by robber’s moll, Lona McLane; sultrily played by Kim Novak in her debut role. Smoothly picks up Lona. Invites her for a drink and soon finds himself getting in over his head as Lona just as smoothly seduces Sheridan and suggests an easy way out with her and the bank’s stolen $200,000.
The film’s back lot, claustrophobic, shadowy, rain slicked look and Noir feel fit Mr. MacMurray’s Sheridan like a glove as he stakes out Lona’s tiny apartment in its U-shaped complex. With a plethora of high dolly shots that make Sheridan’s trench coated shadows stretch even longer. Selling his soul to the devil as he lies to his partner, Rick McAllister, well played by Philip Carey and paternal overseer, Paddy Dolan. Fudges reports to his by the book boss, Lt. Eckstrom, a sturdy, aspiring E.G. Marshall. Then slither away to see Lona and their plans quickly head south. Culminating with a few unexpected, noisy, greed motivated murders that leave no one the better.
4. The Apartment (1960)
We now find Mr. MacMurray again under the deft hand of Billy Wilder. As a rather major cog in a flawless Magnum Opus to very early 1960s Corporate America. Its hive of worker drones. The key to success and all its bells, whistles, vices and secret that are part and parcel of innovation, imagination and climbing to the top. Here, MacMurray reigns supreme as he toys with and sometimes taunts a new and possibly unwelcome addition to his fiefdom. Jack Lemmon, deftly mixing comedy and drama as naive, sometimes nebbish-y, C.C. Baxter.
MacMurray’s personnel director, Jeff Sheldrake is at the pinnacle of his appointed ladder. Basically content and more than somewhat amoral. He quickly adds his own name to the list of executives young Baxter loans his close by apartment to for late night, off the books assignations. Sheldrake dangles shiny totems and talismans of advancement before Baxter eyes. Private office and perks. While carrying on an affair with elevator girl, Fran Kubelik. Realistically brought to life by Shirley MacLaine.
Troubles ensue when Miss Kubelik catches Baxter’s fancy. Keeping relatively low key until Christmas Eve Night. While Miss Kubelik waits for Shelldrake at the company party. Only to see him enter with an earlier secretary, Edie Adams. on his arm. Miss Kubelik panics and runs to Baxter’s empty apartment and attempts a suicide with sleeping pills. Sheldrake remains, perhaps gleefully and deliberately oblivious of it all. Juggling multiple mistresses with a knowing, winning smile until the final few minutes. When Baxter quits and gives Shelldrake his surprising and well earned comeuppance. With a verbal berating and the returned keys to the executive washroom.
While being given many roles to play, I still believe that Mr. MacMurray was anxious to find a niche where he could stretch and flex his muscles and have some fum with particularly meaty roles under the guidance of tried and tested directors. More so with Billy Wilder, who gave the actor ample opportunities to deliver some of his best, most memorable work. Not as the hero, but the heel. Cunningly pulling strings in The Apartment and to a lesser extent in The Caine Mutiny. While also being able to flip the coin and portray an every man who takes a decision and winds up on an E Ticket to Hell in Double Indemnity and Pushover. Films revealing clever men you may not mind sharing a drink with. Though not much more.
Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews
What do you think of Fred MacMurray? Do share your favorite role(s) of this classic actor.
21 thoughts on “Classic Flix List: Fred MacMurray – Superb Louse!”
Excellent look at Fred MacMurray, Kevin. He really was quite versatile performer (especially between drama and comedy), but that never translated into a larger career you’d have thought it would have. Though, the films he did, especially those you highlight, do show off what made him, as you say, a clever man “you may not mind sharing a drink with.” Well done.
Thanks so much!
One of the main reasons the films I mention stand out is Mr. Mac Murray’s ability to keep a straight face and plausible facts together as he heaps lies on top of lies. While maintaining an air of being above it all.
I wouldn’t mind having a drink with him, but I sure wouldn’t want to share a Poker table with him, either.
I would have liked to have seen more of his darker side in film or television. Though just going through his body of work in IMDb and his first role as an extra in 1928. Maybe Mr. Mac Murray found the comfortable niche he’d sought. Aging well as an icon on ‘My Three Sons’ for 12 seasons.
The Absent-Minded Professor. I grew up with his Disney stuff and My Three Sons on TV. I actually saw the film The Absent-Minded Professor at my grade school. Flubber was so cool! I probably wasn’t ready for him when I finally saw him in Double Indemnity. LOL.
I remember sitting through many double bill Saturday matinees of ‘The Absent Minded Professor’ and ‘The Sword in the Stone’ with assorted cousins during the weekends building up to Christmases of 1963-65. So our families could do their Santa shopping.
I was let down more gently. Seeing Mr. Mac Murray as Lt. Keefer in ‘The Caine Mutiny’. Which made me seek him out in ‘The Apartment’ and later, ‘Double Indemnity’.
‘Flubber’ was definitely cool. The forerunner of Silly Putty!
Hey Jack, thanks for this blast from the past! I know FM mostly from his 60s TV show My Three Sons. A VERY popular show back in the day, I watched it all the time. In fact, I think he may have been one of the first single dads on TV. Almost forgot about his Disney films. He was certainly high profile back then and made quite a few movies, and played leading men too.
Thanks for dropping by. Great Comments!
One of the reasons I went the direction I did in my post, was to show Mr. Mac Murray’s earlier, well explored and portrayed dark side that he reveled in so well. Which may have been the reason for him turning to Disney and television to play such universally loved characters as Professor Ned Brainard and later, Steve Douglas.
I watched a lot of ‘My Three Sons’ on Saturday nights while growing up. Though, I believe that another veteran actor with a bit of cad in him was the first single dad on TV.
John Forsythe played single lawyer, Bentley Craig. Who helped raise his young niece, Kelly, well played by Noreen Corcoran. For five seasons. From 1957 to 1962 on ABC.
It’s a crime on my part that I have yet to see The Apartment. Yes I know I should get on that. I’m really intrigued by MacMurray’s work, he sounds like the Stanley Tucci of his day!
Mr. Mac Murray was like an Utility Infielder. A jack of all trades who could handle any role well. Play a very believable bad guy when called upon. Or a good every man and leading man.
I caught Stanley Tucci a few weeks ago in full chameleon mode playing a crooked cop in ‘Lucky Number Slevin’ with Bruce Willis, Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu. Not a bad film at all and perhaps worth mentioning in a post later.
I had to wait to the final credits to see his name make the connection.
Hi Jack…What a great phrase “superb louse” is, and how well it describes Fred MacMurray’s roles in these movies you’ve chosen. Great summaries! I never watched My Three Sons so the louses are all I know of him. I saw him with Ms. Stanwyck in a movie called Remember The Night. He was a really good guy who was nice to his mom and it was quite a shock.
It took awhile, but ‘superb’ is an adjective that fits and describes perfectly. And wraps around Mr. Mac Murray’s Jeff Sheldrake like a custom fitted suit.
One part ‘I can do whatever I want!’ and three parts ‘Who’s going to stop me?’ makes for a heady brew and equals ‘Superb Louse’.
Quite a change from his very polite and well mannered John Sargent opposite a very Barbara Stanwyck’s Lee Leander. Whose character I always felt was a precursor to her Sugarpuss O’Shea in ‘Ball of Fire’ with Gary Cooper a year later.
Great post Jack
A wonderful way to look at a career that often gets dismissed due to his popularity on TV.
Honestly he was capable of handling any type role thrown at him.
A lot of stuff brimming underneath the surface.
Thanks so much for adding to the conversation.
There seemed to be lot more going on behind Mr. Mac Murray’s eyes and persona than he let on in front of a camera. Whether it was drama, comedy, western or noir.
About the only thing I don’t remember seeing him in is a musical. Though, I’m sure he would have been great at it!
I love this piece. I remember when I was a kid and all I knew him from was My Three Sons. It was such a shock to see him in these louse roles.
Thanks so much!
What was cool about Mr. Mac Murray is that he was exceptional in any role given him. Regardless if it was film or television.
I kept looking for a fifth ‘louse’ role and couldn’t find one. Though in these four. He does set the bar very high. Or low, depending on your point of view.
I used to watch My Three Sons back when I was a kid, I’ve never seen any of his films though. May have to check some of them out.
Always glad to help! I’m glad I gave you a good place to start.
Let me know what you think of them.
McMurray’s is great. Love him in The Apartment…it is great how we sympathize with him Double Indemnity and find the complete opposite in The Apartment (what a great film!).
Thanks for taking the time to add to the conversation.
I like to think that Billy Wilder had something to do with these decisions and Mr. Mac Murray ran with it. Even if Mr. Wilder didn’t, I’m glad Mr. Mac Murray did.
‘The Apartment’ would not have worked if Mr. Mac Murray’s Jeff Shelldrake was a completely likeable character. Where it is essential for Walter Neff in ‘Double Indemnity’.
To pull these roles off so well and close to effortlessly is the sign of great talent. And Mr. Mac Murray has that in spades, yet never flaunted it.
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