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 my 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 (1944) — 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 (1960) — 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 (1945) — 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 (1940) — 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. (tie) Quantez (1957) — 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. (tie) The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) — 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.