Fred MacMurray: The Perfect Heel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

23 Responses Fred MacMurray: The Perfect Heel
Posted By Mike Doran : August 7, 2013 11:15 am

Talking about My Three Sons

Fred MacMurray was interviewed by TV Guide Once, and mentioned that he’d enjoyed “playing a heel in The Apartment“, but that afterward he’d been accosted by a nice motherly type who was outraged.
Seems she’d taken her kids to see The Apartment because that nice man from the Disney comedies and My Three Sons was in it …

I wonder if she ever caught Double Indemnity on the Late Show – and what she told her kids then …

Posted By Tom Herling : August 7, 2013 11:32 am

I can’t help but think of now-defunct”Spy” magazine’s brilliant satirical portrait of “Fred MacMurray, Serial Killer,” reproduced as text only here:

Posted By gloriarfl : August 7, 2013 12:28 pm

“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)”

I often have this feeling, even with people of my age, who were more or less exposed to the same classics in B/W TV, and then, whenever asked to mention their top ten favourite movies, their lists are populated by Zemeckis, Hugues or Spielberg (films before the 1980 seem not to exist in their minds or in their preferences)

Posted By Heidi : August 7, 2013 12:37 pm

Oh how I love Fred MacMurray! Funny thing is, the first thing I saw him in was Double Indemnity. It is still my favorite. I saw some of the episodes of My 3 Sons later, and I kept waiting for a lifted eyebrow or a sarcastic word. My dvr is primed for today!

Posted By ronjboyd : August 7, 2013 3:38 pm

Don’t forget “The Rains of Ranchipur” (1955) and “Pushover” (1954).

Posted By chris : August 7, 2013 4:16 pm

All three are faves of mine as well. My first exposure to Fred was “My Three Sons” as a kid. To see him in “The Caine Mutiny” really opened my eyes to what an actor’s able to do when he opens up to different roles instead of playing the same thing over and over.

Posted By Patricia Nolan-Hall : August 7, 2013 4:19 pm

“…sometimes the acting branch of the Academy doesn’t seem to know what acting is.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Posted By B Piper : August 7, 2013 7:06 pm

I wouldn’t consider Keefer a traitor so much as a spineless, back-stabbing weasel. It’s a subtle distinction I know but one I felt compelled to make. And it was certainly a great performance.

Posted By Doug : August 7, 2013 10:05 pm

On the other Mac Murray post I mentioned “Alice Adams”, which might have set the Mac Murray ‘type’-pleasant, nice, friendly fella who might grow up to have three sons or invent flubber.
Every angel wants to try on the devil’s horns at least once, and playing cads and heels must have been refreshing for Fred.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 8, 2013 2:53 am

Jose Ferrer kind of walks away with the end of THE CAINE MUTINY…but he never could if his furious indignation wasn’t absolutely justified by MacMurray’s utter caddishness throughout. Funny but when I think of MacMurray as a heel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE APARTMENT always come to mind, but not the other role in this unholy trinity. Maybe because in one he’s a killer, in another he’s a philanderer, and in the third he’s…well, a weasel, really. As Ferrer’s lawyer says, he’s “the real author of the Caine mutiny”…and as you observed, always goading others then dodging all the responsibility.

Posted By Christine in GA : August 8, 2013 2:58 am

Loved this post. These are my three favorite Fred Mac Murray movies. Plus, I recently saw “There’s Always Tomorrow” and was really impressed by his portrayal. Maybe Fred made it look too easy and that’s why he didn’t get nominated; we don’t see him “acting.” I was a kid watching “My Three Sons” and read somewhere he basically just showed up to film the scenes and spent the rest of the time on the golf course.

Posted By Emgee : August 8, 2013 4:19 am

I’ve only seen him in these three movies, but i understand he’s the ideal family dad in all his others. Which partly explains why he’s such a convincing cad in these three roles.
Who better than a outwardly respectable and trustworthy guy to play a heel? If he was an obvious fraud, we wouldn’t fall for his tricks. I’m sure we’ve all met such guys in real life. The ones about whom we say after being duped: “But he seemed like such a nice, honest guy?….” Those are the worst.

Posted By Mike Doran : August 8, 2013 11:33 am

Second thought:

I just recalled another MacMurray-Disney pic:The Absent-Minded Professor.
What brought this one to mind was the death a week or so ago of Elliot Reid, who played MacMurray’s college prof rival for Nancy Olson.
Few comic actors did smugness as well as ‘Ted’ Reid did, but mention of Caine got me to thinking:
Suppose that just prior to starting AMP, Fred and Ted decided to exchange parts?
That might have been a sight to behold …

Posted By DevlinCarnate : August 8, 2013 12:33 pm

the thing i liked most about MacMurray’s portrayal of Keefer was at the beginning he was the wise cracking iconoclast,dismissing everyone and everything with a one liner,which in something as rigidly structured as the Navy is tantamount to insubordination,only to find out later on the witness stand that it was false bravado,and revealing him to actually be more insecure than originally thought,when Greenwald throws champagne in his face and challenges him to go outside you can practically see Keefer physically shrink,and that’s why it’s much harder to play a heel as compared to a villian

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 9, 2013 12:27 am

DevlinCarnate: Nice analysis!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 9, 2013 3:27 pm

Thanks to all for the great responses. Sorry, but I was away for the last couple of days.

As for Keefer, I’m glad that performance is revered among so many people. And yes, it definitely is more of a weasel portrayal than a traitor but still, he turns on his buddies.

Bottom line, it’s a great performance and one that should have received some form of peer recognition. Bogart is justifiably celebrated for his performance as Queeg, but MacMurray is right up there with him.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 11, 2013 5:59 pm

Keefer’s genius is his ability to convince his friends that what they’re up to is on the side of the righteous, to the point where they’re willing to put everything on the line. The scene where he chickens out as they’re about to take their complaints to fleet is telling; at that time he persuades them they don’t have enough yet to take on Queeg and to back off, but later when they conclude action is inevitable, they find they’re on their own: Keefer is somewhere over there on the sidelines, still backing off. He may be able to convince everyone else their cause is just and above reproach, but he’ll never convince himself; never to the point where actual action is required.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 12, 2013 10:39 am

My husband and I knew MacMurray first from My 3 Sons and the Disney films-he is great as the absent-minded professor. We also enjoy his “heel” roles, but have to utter “Mr. Douglas!”, with distain under our breath every time we see him as that heel.

Posted By swac44 : August 12, 2013 11:40 am

I was thinking of MacMurray last night while watching Breaking Bad, imagining Bryan Cranston’s career as MacMurray’s in reverse. Most viewers knew Cranston first as the loveable, goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle, before he rose to even greater fame as one of the nastiest pieces of work on TV since Tony Soprano, chemistry-teacher-turned-crystal-meth-wizard Walter White.

Then again, WW’s character arc is similar to that as well, starting out as a well-liked family man whose cancer diagnosis leads him to use his powers for evil to ensure his family’s future after he’s gone. Well, you know what they say about the road to Hell and good intentions…

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 12, 2013 11:10 pm

Don’t forget, Bryan Cranston was the wacky dentist on Seinfeld before he was the silly dad of Malcom in the Middle.

Posted By swac44 : August 13, 2013 4:05 pm

Somehow Jenni, I think that only helps further my theory. (I bailed from Seinfeld after four seasons, so I’ll take your word for it regarding his wackiness.)

BTW, it’s worth seeking out Cranston’s interview with comedian/IFC sitcom star Marc Maron on MM’s WTF podcast. As an actor, he’s had a pretty incredible journey, I can’t wait to see what he gets up to post-Breaking Bad.

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2013 1:04 pm

Three of my favorites are detailed here. He’s great in all of them.

Posted By diana seay : January 26, 2016 4:11 am

I’ve seen the promo where Fred MacMurray’s daughter is talking about her father. I’m just wondering what the movie is, towards the end? It looks as if he’s standing over someone, he’s holding a bouquet of flowers, saying that he’ll always love them. He’s quite elderly there. I’d love to know. Thanks!

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