Monday, March 31, 2014

The Five Best Fred MacMurray Performances

A versatile performer in film and television for five decades, Fred MacMurray deserved more opportunities to display his acting talents. Still, when he got the chance to bite into a good role, he did so convincingly--whether it was in a Billy Wilder film noir or a Walt Disney family comedy. Below are our picks for his six best performances--yes, there's a tie for the fifth spot. Do you agree? Disagree? As always, all feedback is welcomed.

1. Double Indemnity - Fred gave a career-defining performance as the cynical protagonist of Billy Wilder's classic film noir. His insurance salesman is no fool; he realizes that Barbara Stanwyck's femme fatale is up to no good from their first meeting. However, he also knows that he can't resist her and thus is pulled into a web of deceit and murder. Amazingly, MacMurray keeps the audience from despising his character. His genuine friendship with nice guy Edward G. Robinson helps, as does the feeling that he knows he's doing wrong, but is powerless to do anything about it.

2. The Apartment - There is nothing redeeming about Jeff Sheldrake, a corporate executive that uses his position for personal gain, cheats on his wife, and lies to his mistress. MacMurray, reteaming with Billy Wilder, plays Sheldrake with a hard edge. The only time he displays what appears to be genuine emotion is when he tells his mistress that he's leaving his wife--and, of course, that turns out to be a ploy, too. Sheldrake is a jerk and Fred plays him beautifully.

3. Murder, He Says - I'm surprised this cult comedy hasn't gained a more mainstream reputation over the years. Fred plays a pollster trying to find a missing co-worker who was sent to interview the backwoods Fleagle clan (headed by matriarch Marjorie Main). MacMurray grounds the film as the bewildered hero plopped into a plot about hidden gold, murder, assumed identities, and a seemingly nonsensical song. He and Marjorie Main play off each other extremely well. They later appeared together in the more popular The Egg and I, which led to the Ma and Pa Kettle film series.

4. Remember the Night - Prior to Double Indemnity, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck starred in this charming romance about a prosecutor and a shoplifter who fall in love over the Christmas holidays as she awaits trial. It's an unlikely premise, of course, but the two stars pull it off nicely and Preston Sturges' script carefully navigates through the film's more sentimental scenes. Though some people find the ending disappointing, I love it--primarily because it's true to MacMurray's character.

5. Quantez - The best of MacMurray's 1950s Westerns is a nifty character drama about an outlaw gang hiding out in a ghost town en route to Mexico. MacMurray's bandit, while the toughest and most rugged of the lot, is also the one least prone to condone violence. It's no surprise that he's harboring a secret past, but the way in which it's revealed is the highlight of this intriguing little picture.

5. The Absent-Minded Professor - Fred is perfectly cast as an (what else?) absent-minded college professor who gets so caught up with his experiments that he forgets his own wedding. Fortunately, his latest invention, Flubber, eventually saves the day. During the latter part of his career, Fred specialized in family films, often playing occasionally befuddled fathers in comedies like The Shaggy Dog and The Happiest Millionaire and on TV in My Three Sons. It's fascinating to watch him playing those parts with such ease after a recent viewing of Double Indemnity or The Apartment.

Honorable Mentions: The Caine Mutiny; Take a Letter, Darling; and Alice Adams.


  1. I haven't seen Quantez or Murder, He Says, but of the other four performances of MacMurray's (all excellent) you picked, my personal favorite is in Remember the Night. Love the film, love the ending - which is, I agree, completely consistent with his character.

  2. Hi, Rick!
    Great list of Murray films. Glad to see Alice Adams get an honorable mention as well.
    I wonder how many people, unfamiliar with REMEMBER THE NIGHT, watched it after seeing Fred and Barbara burn up the screen in DI?
    On a side note: I'm finally with the majority on your latest poll. ha ha Excited about that since I usually pick the film at the very bottom in voting.
    Have a great week!

  3. I am SO with you on Fred's performance in "Double Indemnity." I think he is sensational in that film---Oscar worthy really. That he didn't even garner an Academy Award nomination astounds me.

    I love him in "Remember the Night" as well. He and Barbara Stanwyck had great chemistry together.

    2 other of his performances I really like are "The Lady Is Willing" (with Marlene Dietrich) and "Hands Across the Table (with Carole Lombard).

    I caught him earlier this month in "Pushover," a Double Indemnity-kind of film, with Fred led astray by his attraction to another femme fatale---Kim Novak. He was really great in that role.

    Of course, as a child of the 1960's, I grew up with Fred MacMurray, through "My Three Sons." When I was watching that show all those years ago, I had no idea he had any other claim to fame.

  4. Here's a list of 10 favourite performances I made a couple of years ago:

    Right at the top is "The Absent-Minded Professor", one of the most perfect comedy performances ever! Watch "Neddy the Nut" closely. I swear to god that he really believes he has invented flubber. Priceless.

  5. Just glad to see Murder, He Says make the list. One of my all-time favorite black comedies.

  6. Have not seen Quantez but I would toss into the mix There's Always Tomorrow (with Stanwyck once again) Pushover and Too Many Husbands.

  7. I haven't seen MURDER, HE SAYS in years! I need to rewatch it. Thanks for the reminder - and the great list. :)

  8. "Murder, He says" and "Quartez" are new to me. I'll have to look them up!

    Also, so glad "Double Indemnity" was #1, and that "Remember the Night" made the list. :)

  9. Pretty good list, tough to argue with these choices, I might add Pushover, with Kim Novak.

  10. Never even heard of Quantez, but I just looked it up. It was written by R. Wright Campbell who wrote some pretty terrific crime/PI novels later in his career. Now I really want to see it.

  11. Echoing the others as I've never heard of Quantez either! Must find it, as per your comments, it sounds very interesting,

  12. Rick, I truly enjoy your lists. Fred MacMurray turned in some remarkable performances. I just saw "Remember the a Night" this year and was truly charmed with his and Barbara Stanwyck's chemistry. I was also amazed at how convincingly he portrayed the philandering boss in "The Apartment." Add comedy and Western into the mix and you find a truly gifted actor.

  13. Good list, Rick -- and a very deserving spotlight! I will have to give Remember the Night another try.

  14. I saw Murder, He Says on a double bill with Where Do We Go From Here? A genie sends Fred careening through time. IMDB tells me the music was (at least partly) the work of Weill and Gershwin!

    MHS was a big hit and I was glad to finally get it on video a few years ago.

  15. I give honorable mention to BORDERLINE and PUSHOVER (Kim Novak's first film).


  16. Can't argue with those choices. I think it is universally agreed that Double Indemnity is his best performance. I found him enormously appealing and surprisingly sexy in two of his early films with Carole Lombard, Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across where he plays a mean concertina. I've searched in vain for their more serious Swing High, Swing Low. Their pairing in True Confession though is a miss, not because of them but the script is terrible and both seem too intelligent for the idiotic characters they are stuck playing.

    Like Jimmy Stewart he was expert at the befuddled Dad in later years a role that didn't require a great deal of stretching but takes a certain kind of talent and personality to do well which both did.