Sunday, August 02, 2009

Shield for Murder (1954)

Starring Edmond O'Brien (Barney Nolan), Marla English (Patty), John Agar (Mark), with Emile Meyer, Carolyn Jones, Claude Akins.

Bitter and burned out, veteran police detective Barney Nolan longs to distance his nightclub-worker girlfriend Patty and himself from the chilly realities of life on the street - and is willing to shatter the laws he's long upheld if they keep him from realizing his twisted dream of middle-class domestic bliss. Robbing and brazenly murdering a connected bookmaker for $25,000 - and then claiming the man's death was the result of a warning shot gone wild, Nolan's story immediately raises the eyebrows of his colleagues and captain, as his attitude and actions in recent years have reflected an alarming corrosion of spirit. Serving as a makeshift safe-deposit box, a hole behind the freshly-built tract house Nolan is securing for himself and Patty is fed the ill-gotten gains undercover of darkness...

Clearly suspicious, but reluctant to embrace the notion of Nolan's guilt are both his commanding officer (Meyer) and his longtime friend-on-the-force Mark (Agar), a younger cop who displays a not-so-brotherly protectiveness for Patty - who herself hints at a reciprocal attraction. While they reserve judgment, two shady private eyes hired by the dead man's boss immediately beleaguer the gruff, defensive Nolan - and introduce the other hostile, probing entity he must hoodwink if he is to successfully reach his suburban oasis. Nolan's plan is further disrupted by the emergence of an eyewitness - a deaf mute who knows the incident was no accident, but not that it was Nolan who pulled the trigger - until the desperate cop pays him a nocturnal visit, and irreversibly worsens the situation for both he and the do-gooder.

One of several 'dirty cop' noirs to hit silver screens in 1954 (the others being Rogue Cop, Private Hell 36, and the under appreciated Pushover), Shield For Murder holds no claim as the most stylish, poignant, or artfully produced. It's meat-and-potatoes noir for the masses - which is by no means a critique, as many of it's ilk are memorable, respect-worthy genre entries. It's just that Shield could've been far better than it turned out - more nuanced, stylized, and resonant - with a bit of structural tweaking here, and the odd infusion of sophistication there. Beginning the story proper after a tantalizing glimpse of it's downbeat conclusion would've added a welcome artsy spark, and been more in keeping with the genre's patented and favored storytelling style - the flashback structure. Nothing casts a gloom over a lead character quite like a brief fast-forward to his/her downfall or demise, and Shield would've benefited immeasurably from just such a stylistic device.

Normally, one can't find fault with an Edmond O'Brien performance, but in his role as the embittered cop on the verge of mortal meltdown - or Norman Rockwell-ness, the genre favorite skirts the edge of camp, delivering his laughably hard-boiled lines through gnashed teeth - spitting out dialogue more appropriate for a 30s pot-boiler (if it's use was meant as character development - to color Nolan as department dinosaur - it wasn't worth it). Rarely, if ever, are we shown the rogue cop in a moment of quiet contemplation, struggling with the tangled web he himself wove. It's damn near impossible to relate to him, or to sympathize with his plight, when he regularly alienates the viewer - unlike Fred MacMurray's conflicted cop in Pushover, who we actually want to see get away with murder (and Kim Novak).

As unimaginatively shot and directed (by first-timer O'Brien himself) as it is undeniably engrossing, 'Shield' feels like an early television morality tale - cast with actors and actresses of wildly varying ability. Merely passable, the film is like a short, forgettable crime story brought to black-and-white life.

Written by Dave



  1. The tiny scene with Carolyn Jones as the battered prostitute (check out the bruises on her arm) is awesome.

  2. I just viewed this movie on TMC. I was impressed with its depiction of a "cop-on-the-take" who gets in too deep with the "bad-guys".
    Edmund O'brien did an admiral job playing this role of an up-standing officer of the law - tempted with the chance to "do wrong" than to "do right". I had to laugh at the end credits when it was revealed that he directed the movie along with Howard Koch.
    Did anyone notice how this pre-Dragnet flik was like watching a developing Dragnet series? Also, several of the supporting role actors were about to bloom and blossom into their own series on television. When I saw Claude Akins in the role of a "hood", I said "Wow"! He's been acting for a long time. His presence in this movie kind of set a precedence for his future roles on TV & movies. Did anyone notice that several actors would be acting together in future TV or movie roles. There were several actors who would later appear on The Adams Family, Andy Griffith Show, Munsters, Dragnet and many more immortalized Tv series. Everybody has there humble beginnings.

  3. the scene of the murder at the high school swimming poolblew me away

  4. This is a good film noir and also a little off track. An O'Brien scenery chewer to be sure. However the casting was top-flight. A lot of quality faces way down in the credits. Robert Bray, William Boyett, William Schallert, John Beradino to name a few, fleshed out the film in a work-man like manner. Not to mention, Richard Deacon, Emile Meyer or Carolyn Jones. Obviously most every cast member was working for scale and came in got their scene(s) or lines in and got paid and were off. This low budget type of "B" works for Aubrey Schenk and he made a bunch of them for United Artists which swelled UA's bottom line at a time the movies were starting lose audience to Television.
    Artistic ? No. Did it make money? I'll bet that it did.

  5. Where to begin? Carolyn Jones are the barfly? Edmond O'Brien's sweat, greasy hair and double chin? Those great bulbous police cars? EMILE MEYER? It may be a formulaic noir, but this is a wonderful way to speand just over an hour. Great stuff.


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