Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 7, 2013
A Friendly Warning: Spoilers Lurk Within
Today is Fred MacMurray’s day here at TCM and certainly he was a fine actor, famous for so many great performances and yet so undervalued by his peers in his time. Despite all his best efforts, he never got so much as a single Oscar nomination from his peers his entire career. Not one. But that’s okay because TCM loves him and, in fact, right here in this very space he’s noted for being the subject of the first ever Morlocks blogathon, way back in 2008. And yet, the thing that MacMurray was best at rarely gets mentioned. To put it bluntly, he was kind of a heel.
No, I’m not talking about in his personal life. I don’t go in for the whole “dirty laundry” aspect of celebrity gossip and except for getting a basic understanding of a star’s personal life through general biographical information, I don’t care what they do off-screen. It’s on-screen that’s important and on-screen, few actors played a heel better than MacMurray. In three performances, he did it so well it really is jaw-dropping that he didn’t get nominations. I know, I know, nominations and awards are meaningless but, still, it’s peer recognition, for better or worse, and if his peers couldn’t recognize his greatness in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny and The Apartment then, brother, I’m not sure they should have been trusted with anything.
Double Indemnity was the first of the great heel performances by Fred MacMurray. Usually, in a noir, the detective/investigator figure is the protagonist in the lead. But in Double Indemnity, that investigator, Keys (played to perfection by Edward G. Robinson), takes a backseat to the conniving heel at the center, Walter Neff (good old Fred). Walter Neff, an insurance salesman for Pacific All Risk, comes across Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) while renewing an auto policy for her husband. Phyllis asks about taking out a life insurance policy on her husband without him knowing which Neff figures pretty quickly for a plan to murder hubby and collect the money. He walks away but by the time she shakes her anklet a second time, he’s on board and ready to do all the dirty work himself. And when she betrays him, well, he let’s her have it, twice.
To understand what a heel he is, compare John Garfield’s character in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Frank Chambers, with Neff here. In Postman, Chambers seems like a decent guy somehow brought to the conclusion that a bad man is being killed and the result is a better life for someone who really needs a break. That’s not really true but that’s what you get from Garfield, an actor who seemingly made every character he played ultimately sympathetic, a reflection of the man himself.
Neff, on the other hand, gets his libido up and figures, “What the hell, why not?” When he’s betrayed by Dietrichson later there’s a sense of indignation – “How dare you stoop to betray me. I betray you!” Neff isn’t one to turn this thing over in his gut a million times until he develops an ulcer. It’s more of a challenge, with people’s lives at stake and when he narrates the whole story to Keys, there’s not so much a sense of confession of his sins as there is “I’m telling you this so you’ll know how clever I was and I almost got away with it.” He admires that Keys figured him out, though, and that kind of professional courtesy is as deep feeling as he gets. MacMurray’s Neff is a heel with a sharp wit and a quick gun.
Next up comes one of the greatest traitor performances in movie history, MacMurray’s Lieutenant Thomas Keefer in The Caine Mutiny. Recently, as I was thinking about it, I typed in “Greatest Traitors in the Movies” or some such thing on Google, to see if he was there, and the film lists that came up from a variety of sites all had the same tired lists of traitors from the last twenty to thirty years (The Matrix, Aliens, etc). Nowhere on the list was Keefer which just goes to show how bereft of imagination (and movie knowledge) most film sites are (heck, I couldn’t even find a list that had HAL9000 on it. Geez). Well, let me just say, for me, no one does turncoat better than MacMurray’s smug, inciter Keefer, always prodding and pushing others into action and then, when it counts most, turning his back and walking away.
After growing up on My Three Sons, seeing MacMurray in The Caine Mutiny was a revelation. I really did think, “This guy’s the smart one. As long as they get him on the stand they’re okay.” And then he cowardly backed away from any responsibility, leaving his partners in crime hanging (almost literally if it hadn’t gone their way in the end). It’s a great performance and another convenient piece of evidence that sometimes the acting branch of the Academy doesn’t seem to know what acting is.
In the last great heel performance of this amazing triumvirate of performances is philandering boss, Jeff Sheldrake, in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, from 1960. Wow, what a heel! Sheldrake is exactly where you figure Keefer would end up after the war. You can just imagine he changed his name to live down the Caine incident, and eventually schmoozed his way into the Personnel Director’s position (probably stabbing a lot of people in the back along the way) at the insurance corporation (again with the insurance!) where Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) operates the elevator. He’s having an affair with Fran, using C.C. Baxter’s (Jack Lemmon) apartment, an underling hoping to climb the ladder of success. And, oh, how he lies to her. He’ll get a divorce, just not now. He loves her, of course, how can she doubt him? He strings her along to satisfy his libido and controls those, like Baxter, who can make it happen. When he gets his comeuppance, it’s as sweet as can be, even if we only get to see his quick surprise that she’s gone. And once again, the members of the Academy must have somehow seen a bootlegged copy where all of MacMurray’s scenes were edited out. I can’t think of any other reason he wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor. They simply must not have known he was in it.
So today, please enjoy this great actor and all the movies shown, all of which show his great talent and wonderfully sharp delivery. He was one of the best and when it came to being a heel, nobody did it better.
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