Double Indemnity (1944) is perhaps the best-known and most loved picture in the classic Hollywood A film noir cycle. Ask someone to name a great noir, and Double Indemnity is likely to be the film of choice — or in the top few at least. The hard-boiled dialogue, the femme fatale and sexualized violence, the criminal POV, the voiceover and flashback framing, the night-for-night filming, the low-key lighting, and big name stars who’d come to be associated with the genre (Stanwyck and Robinson): Double Indemnity has it all.
Because of the film’s popularity and its reliance on central noir and pulp fiction tropes, it’s not surprising that elements of Double Indemnity were echoed in many other films. However, as the original noir cycle began to run out of steam in the mid-to-late 1950s, using the picture as a template for copycat films became increasingly obvious…and sometimes downright cringeworthy. (Of course, the worst of all was the 1973 TV movie remake with Richard Krenna, Lee J. Cobb, and Samatha Eggar (4.7/10 on IMDb).
There are two pictures from the 1950s that I’d like to discuss in more comparative detail. Both share multiple (but different) elements with Double Indemnity, and neither is anywhere near as compelling as its source of inspiration. But if you’ve only got time for one Double Indemnity knock-off, which one should you see? This face-off is intended help you decide.
The contenders are, like Double Indemnity, about scheming blondes (played by actresses in their first major roles), men who easily fall prey to their charms, incisive sidekicks, and heaps of dangerous double-dealing! Here they are:
Pushover (1954) and The Scarlet Hour (1956)
Now let’s have a face-off!
- Richard Quine (P)
- Michael Curtiz (SH)
Neither of these directors holds up to Billy Wilder, director of Double Indemnity and a host of other great flicks, but Michael Curtiz is by far the better known of the two, famous among noir lovers for Casablanca (1941, not a noir but pre-noirish) and Mildred Pierce (1945), not to mention my favorite Elvis pic, the noirish King Creole (1958). Richard Quine is less prolific and Pushover was his first noir. He may be best known to noir fans for Bell, Book and Candle (1958), also starring Novak. In these films, neither director shows himself to be a master craftsman, though Pushover is a simpler, tighter film than the somewhat wandering Scarlet Hour. Neither director brought his A game, let’s just say.
- Kim Novak as Lona McLane
- Carol Ohmart as Pauline “Paulie” Nevins
This is a tough call, mostly because I think others will disagree. Both Novak and Ohmart have their first starring roles in these pictures, and you will be easily forgiven for not even knowing who Ohmart is (unless you’re a fan of House on Haunted Hill, in which she plays Vincent Price’s murderous and ultimately murdered wife). Many male fans of classic film seem to go ga-ga for Kim Novak. She really doesn’t do it for me, especially not in Pushover. She is full of “come hither” gleam, but not much else. Ohmart is a stereotypical over-the-top femme fatale, but she pulls it off well.
Winner: Carol Ohmart, The Scarlet Hour
- Fred MacMurray as Paul Sheridan
- Tom Tryon as E.V. “Marsh” Marshall
Yes, that’s right, the protagonist of Pushover is Fred MacMurray, reprising the hard-boiled type (a cop this time) who falls for the femme fatale — hook, line, and sinker. He’s older and duller this time, as is his performance. Tom Tryon is the young guy desperately in lust with the boss’s wife, and he gives it a good, earnest go. The actor would later appear in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and soon after become a writer, achieving much greater success and happiness than he had in acting. Honestly, neither one of these men light up the screen in these iffy copycat films, so I’m calling it a tie.
— SPOILER ALERT —
Pushover: Gangster’s moll Lona McLane needs attention and has a sudden and rather random affair with Paul Sheridan. When she learns he’s a cop, she suckers him into protecting her even though he’s the precinct’s choice to watch her so they can catch her criminal boyfriend. Soon, he’s in deep, and the film ends with a strange kind of earnestness as Paul is busted for being on the wrong side of the law.
The Scarlet Hour: “Paulie” Nevins has a possessive, jealous, abusive older husband. He’s also the boss of handsome young “Marsh,” who falls for Paulie in a big way. She makes clear, though, that she won’t leave her horrible hubby unless wage slave Marsh can come up with some real dough…which she discovers when the couple overhear some petty crooks planning to break into a home while its owners are away to claim tens of thousands in jewelry from their safe. Paulie demands Marsh wait outside the house and take the jewels after the thieves have gotten it, and though he protests at first, he does as Paulie says. But getting the loot causes more problems than it solves when Mr. Nevins shows up, having followed his wayward wife who is driving the getaway car. When he is killed accidentally by Paulie, problems begin to mount, and Marsh finally realizes Paulie is selfish and cruel. He wanders into the arms of Nevins’ sweet secretary Kathy (Jody Lawrance) and sees how it all might have been, had he not been thinking with his dick.
As you can see, The Scarlet Hour has that Double Indemnity vibe in the love/lust triangle, but it also has lots of noirish twists and turns. Both the plot and pacing are faster and simpler in Pushover. Both films have the feeling of genre exhaustion, and their endings are equally mediocre, given that Lona turns out to be sincere and Marsh gets the undeserved love of a good girl. Though I must ignore the denouement, I like the later film better for Ohmart’s wicked femme fatale and her ornate robbery plan.
Winner: The Scarlet Hour, just barely
BEST SUPPORTING CAST MEMBER
- Phil Carey as Rick McAllister
- Elaine Stritch as Phyllis Rycker
I love Philip Carey. He was Asa Buchanan as well as Philip Marlowe on TV and before that he was in several movies playing big hunky guys. In Pushover, he’s MacMurray’s partner, a cop that trusts his buddy longer than he deserves…at least in part because he’s chatting up Kim Novak’s neighbor (played with sass by Dorothy Malone — she of the pointy bra in the picture above). I can’t resist Carey’s dimples, though Elaine Stritch’s ability to handle comedy material is definitely a match. She is awesome as Ohmart’s best galpal, full of pizzazz and wit. Because Carey’s character spies on Malone’s — and it’s not just to look out for her safety! — I’m going to give this round to Stritch, even though it isn’t Carey’s fault that the writers were sexist. (Honestly, her part is much better than his.)
Winner: Stritch, The Scarlet Hour
- Lester White, director of photography
- Lionel Lindon, cinematography
As with the plot, the look of these films suffers from B budgets and noir exhaustion. There are some nice dark settings in Pushover, though, from the stakeout apartment to the street scenes. The Scarlet Hour doesn’t even seem to bother with caring about cinematography.
In the end, I can envision watching The Scarlet Hour again when I’m in the mood for late B noir. I’ve seen Pushover twice, and I honestly don’t ever need to see it again. As my votes above show…
FACE-OFF WINNER: THE SCARLET HOUR
…though don’t take that as a serious recommendation…