Saturday, August 12, 2017

Stubs - Shield for Murder

Shield for Murder (1954) Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Marla English, John Agar, Emile Meyer, Carolyn Jones, Claude Akins, Larry Ryle, Herbert Butterfield, Hugh Sanders, William Schallert, David Hughes, Richard Cutting, Richard Deacon. Directed by Edmond O'Brien, Howard W. Koch. Screenplay by: Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins. Based on the novel Shield for Murder by William P. McGivern. Produced by Aubrey Schenck. Run Time: 82 minutes. USA. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

While the name William P. McGivern might not be a household name today, he was a prolific writer in the 1940s and 1950s, publishing about 20 novels, most of them mysteries and crime thrillers under the pseudonym Bill Peters. The films Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954) were all based on his books, which dealt with crooked lawmen. One more novel he wrote, Shield for Murder, dealing with similar themes, was also made into a movie.

The story attracted the attention of Aubrey Schenck, the nephew of Joseph and Nicolas Schenck. Aubrey, like his more famous uncles, was also involved in the film industry, having begun producing films with Shock! (1946) starring Vincent Price. Aubrey was no stranger to film noir, having produced T-Men (1947), so his interest in the novel should come as no surprise.

When it was announced in April 1952 that he intended to produce the film, actor Dana Andrews was in the leading role. That all changed over time. When it was announced in December 1953 that the film was going into production in January, Schenck had a producing partner, Howard W. Koch.

Koch had begun working for Universal Pictures in their New York office before moving to Los Angeles and debuting as an assistant director in 1947. Koch’s first job as a producer was the film War Paint (1953). But before the film would actually go into production in May 1954, Koch would move to behind the camera as the director. Actually co-director, with Edmond O’Brien, who was also signed to star in the film. It was the first time in the director’s chair for both men.

Originally a stage actor, O’Brien first got the attention of producer Pando S. Berman, who offered the actor the romantic lead in RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), which starred Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.

O’Brien’s Hollywood career took a bit of a hiatus during World War II when he served in the Air Force. He would appear in films, though, during the war years. In Winged Victory (1944), he was credited as Sgt. Edmond O'Brien.

After the war, he would appear in such films as The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), D.O.A. (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He would actually receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Oscar Muldoon in the Humphrey Bogart film, The Barefoot Contessa (1954), released the same year as Shield For Murder.

The film opens with the murder of bookmaker Perk Martin (John
Beradino) by Detective Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien). 

In the film, O’Brien plays crooked police detective Barney Nolan. When we first see him, Nolan is in the shadows, putting a silencer on his revolver, waiting for a bookmaker, Perk Martin (John Beradino), who gets dropped off in front of him. Nolan wastes little time before he accosts the man and, pretending to be under an official cause, takes him into a nearby alley. The bookie, who knows Nolan, tries to find out how much of a bribe it will take to let him go when Nolan shoots him in the back. He then robs the body of $25,000, before removing the silencer from his gun. He then shouts out a warning, before firing two shots into the air, trying to make it appear that the bookie was shot trying to escape.

After killing Martin, Detective Nolan robs the body.

It seems like the perfect crime, but Nolan is unaware that an elderly deaf mute, Ernst Sternmueller (David Hughes), a resident in the next building, saw the entire episode.

The witness, an elderly deaf mute, Ernst Sternmueller (David Hughes).

The police arrive soon afterward with the investigation led by Sgt. Mark Brewster (John Agar). Brewster happens to not only work in the same division as Nolan, University, but is also Nolan’s tutelage and his partner. When he asks Nolan about the killing, Nolan replies that it was an accident, an excuse Brewster is willing to believe.

But Capt. Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), the new precinct commander, is not so willing to accept it, considering Nolan has been involved in two previous killings. He questions both Brewster and Nolan, telling the latter to use better judgment.

Patty Winters (Marla English) is Nolan's girlfriend.

Barney then leaves to go meet his girlfriend, Patty Winters (Marla English), who works at the nightclub. But he is not prepared to see her dressed in the outfit of a cigarette girl. While she considers it a step up, he becomes enraged at her very revealing outfit. Barney hits the club’s owner when he tries to explain and then leaves with Patty.

A couple of PIs, Fat Michaels (Claude Akins-r) and Laddie O’Neil (Larry
 Ryle), show up at police headquarters looking for Nolan, but instead
talk to his partner, Sgt. Mark Brewster (John Agar).

Meanwhile back at the police station, two private detectives, Fat Michaels (Claude Akins) and Laddie O’Neil (Larry Ryle), working on behalf of gangster Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders), come to collect the $25,000 of Reed’s money that the bookie was carrying at the time of the murder. Brewster informs them that the police only found around $300 dollars on the man when they arrived. But the detectives remind him that Nolan was already on the crime scene when Brewster arrived, suggesting he might have the money.

Cabot (Herbert Butterfield), a crime reporter, thinks there is a story.

Cabot (Herbert Butterfield), a crime reporter who hangs out in the detective room, overhears the conversation. Even though he already has a low opinion of Nolan, Brewster convinces him not to write about the situation until Mark can investigate.

Nolan takes Patty to see a model home he wants to purchase for them to live in.

Meanwhile, Nolan tells Patty that his financial situation is improving as he takes her to see a furnished model house in a new development called Castle Heights. After showing her the modernity of the house, he leaves Patty alone inside and goes into the backyard to bury the cash.

After Nolan drops Patty back at her apartment, Fat Michaels and Laddie O’Neil pay her a visit. They are interrupted though by Brewster, who is also waiting for her. After scaring them away, Brewster tells Patty about Nolan’s behavior. When he asks about where they went that night, Patty tells him about the model home but denies she was ever left alone.

Brewster talks to Patty about Nolan's behavior.

At about the same time, Nolan goes to see Packy in what would pass as a 1950’s man cave, complete with a full bar and television. The gangster makes it clear he wants the money back, even offering Nolan the job of ensuring its return. Packy knows Nolan shot Martin, but Nolan is uncooperative, telling Packy Martin only had small bills on him. Packy’s bodyguard (Gregg Martell) prevents Nolan from leaving only long enough for Packy to tell him there’s no place to hide, even in the big city.

Gangster Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) tells Nolan he wants his money back.

The next day, when an assistant district attorney (William Schallert) is interviewing Nolan, Sternmueller comes to the office and hands the DA a note, who in turn gives it straight to Nolan. In the note, Sternmueller writes that he witnessed the entire incident and it did not happen the way it's reported in the newspapers. Sternmueller doesn’t recognize Nolan, who after reading the message hands back a written reply that someone will come to interview him.

Sternmueller comes to report to the police what he had seen.

While he waits for a policeman to arrive, Sternmueller puts to paper how he saw the events play out that night. He is still in the midst of his statement when Nolan arrives. He closes the tablet he’s writing in when he sees the detective. Nolan looks out the man’s window and sees the alley where he killed the bookie. At that moment, Sternmueller recognizes Nolan’s overcoat as the one worn by the assailant.

After killing Sternmueller, Nolan throws his body down the stairs.

Nolan tries to offer Sternmueller a bribe, but becomes frustrated when the old man can’t understand him. He pushes him back and Sternmueller falls to the ground. It is only afterward that Nolan realizes the man has hit his head on the bed frame and is fatally injured. Nolan then tries to make the death look like an accident by throwing the body down a flight of stairs.

Joe the Bartender (Vito Scotti) and Proprietress (Grazia Narciso)
 run the Italian restaurant Nolan takes refuge in.

Nolan takes refuge at an Italian restaurant/bar run by Joe the Bartender (Vito Scotti) and Proprietress (Grazia Narciso), where he makes the acquaintance of Beth (Carolyn Jones), a blonde barfly. They drink until she convinces him to buy her dinner. While they’re eating, Nolan comes to realize that she is cheap, as she can’t recall who gave her a bruise on her arm. Michaels and O’Neil arrive and put a damper on the party. As horrified customers watch, Nolan beats both men brutally with his service revolver.

At the restaurant, Nolan befriends Beth (Carolyn Jones).

Meanwhile, Brewster is investigating Sternmueller’s death and discovers the tablet with his written statement. He knows now that his death was no accident.

Brewster goes to Nolan's to arrest him for the bookie's murder.

When Nolan returns home, he finds Brewster there to arrest him for the bookie's murder. After Nolan implicates himself in Sternmueller’s death and pleads for time, Brewster draws his gun to arrest him. But Nolan knocks the gun out of his hand and takes charge of the situation. He momentarily considers killing his partner, but cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he knocks him out and leaves.

Nolan considers killing his partner, but just knocks him out instead.

Nolan runs to Patty, who is already in bed. After he wakes her up, he informs her they are leaving immediately. Suspecting that this is about the money that actually belongs to Reed, she begs him to stay and let his partner help straighten things out. Angered that his girl has been talking with Brewster about him, Nolan slaps her, knocking her down to the bed. Suddenly shocked by his violence towards her, Nolan flees.

Meanwhile, his partner, having recovered, delivers his report to Gunnarson. The captain brings everyone from the detective room into his office, including Cabot. He hates bad cops and orders that Nolan be arrested. He also gives Cabot permission to print the story.

Captain Gunnarson (Emile Meyer) can't stand bad cops.

Knowing he’s a wanted man, Nolan heads back to his apartment and to a basement storage room, where we know his patrolman’s uniform is stowed. Donning the uniform, he blends in with the other patrolmen who have arrived at his apartment looking for him. He manages to walk away, pretending to be the beat cop.

For a fee, The Professor (Richard Deacon) lets Nolan hide out.

Nolan hides out with the Professor (Richard Deacon), who is busy studying for a test at night school. He has arranged with a man named Manning (Richard H. Cutting) to smuggle him out of the country for a fee. But it is far more than Nolan has on him, so they arrange for a drop. The Professor mentions the high school where he takes classes and they agree to make the exchange in the Men’s Locker Room. Manning also arranges for a car so Nolan can retrieve the money.

Meanwhile, Patty tells Brewster more about the visit to the model home and that she had been left alone in the house. Brewster suspects that is where the money has been hid.

Later that night, in a very crowded locker room, Manning’s messenger (Frank Marlowe) arrives and they make the exchange, money for the tickets and a new passport. But a heavily bandaged Michaels is also there and has the messenger look in the envelope Nolan gave him. Instead of money, there is only cut up newspaper.

Michaels and Nolan carry their gunfight into a crowded swimming pool.

Michaels then chases Nolan through the gym to the crowded swimming pool. In the ensuing gunfight, Nolan kills Michaels and escapes in the car Manning had provided. Nolan then drives to the model house, but is met by numerous police units blocking the streets of the development. After shooting an officer, Nolan runs to the house and retrieves the cash, but is surrounded by police, including Brewster and Captain Gunnarson. Not willing to give up, Nolan fires at the officers and they respond with a hail of bullets, killing him.

Nolan goes down in a blaze of gunfire as he refuses to surrender.

The film was released on August 27, 1954, and while the reviews were mostly positive, it’s hard to know how well it did at the box office. According to the producer the film "grossed a lot of money, you wouldn't believe how much; on television, it's made a fortune." So, the numbers are pretty vague.

This is the second time I’ve seen this film. The first was years ago, during TCM’s first Summer of Darkness, the most recent was watching the film on Blu-Ray. As far as that goes, it was cleaned up for this release. While MGM owns the rights, the Blu-ray was from Kino Lorber. I’m guessing MGM has given up trying to sell their library on discs and has given that task over to others.

While the film is good, it’s really far from great. You can tell the production was done on a low budget, using locations around Los Angeles, rather than a studio. The Castle Heights development is real and not too far from where 20th Century Fox calls home. Somehow, I doubt it is still the middle-class starter neighborhood it is shown to be in the film.

For the most part, the production qualities are pretty good considering. There is one shot early on, when Nolan is taking Perk to his death in the alleyway, that you see the shadow of the boom microphone, but that is the only obvious error that I remember seeing. It does, though, at least temporarily take you out of the film.

One of the joys of watching the film is to see all the actors you recognize from TV. Actors like Richard Deacon, best known for his role as Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960s, plays it about as tough as he can in this picture. Willian Schallert, Patty Duke’s TV dad, has a small role as the Assistant District Attorney, so I don’t think it really challenged his range. Carolyn Jones, forever remembered as Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family, plays Beth, a woman with seemingly low morals, as she lets Nolan ply her with liquor.

Claude Akins is one of those actors that appeared in a guest role on just about every TV series from the 1950s and 60s you can name. A character actor, he could play it tough or he could play it cowardly with just about the same believability. His first appearance was in the film From Here to Eternity (1953) and he made a few films before his career turned more to the little screen. He was well enough known to play himself in an episode of I Love Lucy. Here he plays it tough and mean. You really get the impression he’s the type that likes to knock heads together. It’s a good meaty supporting role.

Emile Meyer, who plays Captain of the Detectives, is another familiar face, having appeared in such films as Shane (1953), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and numerous TV shows from the 1950s through the 1970s. Here he plays the tough, but fair, Captain, who knows he has a bad cop on his hands with Nolan and when he has the evidence is not only not afraid to go after him but to let the city know as well. Again, another believable performance.

Marla English got an introducing sort of credit, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve never heard of her before. English was cute, to say the least, but she had a very short acting career, walking away from Hollywood at the age of 21, in 1956, when she married a San Diego businessman. She’s good in this part, but there were probably hundreds of actresses who could have filled the bill.

John Agar is probably best remembered for his roles in John Wayne films Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); and for being Shirley Temple’s first husband. Otherwise, his career consisted mostly of “B” movies, a category in which Shield for Murder would also fall. He’s good here, not spectacular, but he gives an even performance.

The lead in the film, Edmond O’Brien, almost seems too old for the role, especially since his love interest is, based on the actress’s age, a young adult. This is probably more a problem with the script than anything else. O’Brien is good, but he doesn’t give a performance that would make one think he’s on the verge of winning an Academy Award or any award for acting. O’Brien made a lot of films, but his acting seems to be more on the hammy side. He’s good in this role, though his sudden bad feeling about hitting Patty seems a little out of character. He had, after all, killed a man in cold blood a few days before. Given his character’s wild reputation, it is sort of hard to believe this would have been the first time.

There are some story problems with Shield for Murder, especially seen through the eyes of a modern viewer. After killing a man, Nolan is allowed to walk away with little interrogation about the incident. They didn’t even take his revolver away or assign him to desk duty. Maybe modern procedures are in place now only after years of the police being cavalier about one of their own killing a suspect. Here it is treated just like another day at the office and Nolan is allowed to go on his way.

It’s also interesting that there is only one crime reporter. Back then, especially in major cities, there were multiple newspapers trying to beat one another to the next story. One was probably enough to make the story work, but it shouldn’t have rung true for viewers when the film was released.

Shield for Murder would have worked better as a walk on the dark side of the American dream if Nolan hadn’t already been a bad cop. His killing the bookie for the money seems more par for the course, rather than a desperate move by someone having to do something normally against his nature.

Not a great film noir, Shield for Murder isn’t really all that bad. There are plenty more films that are much worse out there. I would recommend the film to anyone who likes noir. Even though this may not be the best example of the genre, it is still fun to watch.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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