Monday, May 16, 2016

Shield for Murder
(Camden Productions, Inc., 1954)

Incident in an alley.

Dame-hungry killer cop runs berserk!                                                                                 
Just the Facts
After 16 years on the police force, Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien) has made lieutenant detective, but has yet to wrap his acquisitive hands around middle-class success. Tired of waiting, he’s ready to cut corners, no matter how unlawful, to grab his share of the American Dream. Having learned that a small-time bookmaker is carrying $25,000 for delivery to underworld boss Packy Reed, Nolan plants himself on the unsuspecting bookie’s route, surveilling him while attaching a silencer to his 38 Special before emerging from the shadows with bad intent. Waylaying his victim into an alley, Nolan promptly shoots him in the back and rifles the corpse for the illicit money. Then, chillingly, he backs up a few paces, yells “Stop or I’ll shoot” and fires a couple of un-silenced rounds into the air. It’s as premeditated as murder can get.

When fellow detective Mark Brewster (John Agar) arrives at the crime scene, Nolan tells him that the bookie made a break for it and that Nolan’s shot “went wild,” even though it’s common knowledge that he’s the department’s ranking pistol expert. He’s also known for having an itchy trigger finger, as crime reporter Cabot (who functions as an occasional Greek chorus) reminds Brewster back at the station: “Last year Nolan killed two hungry wetbacks in a market burglary. Three years ago it was that tramp over on Sullivan Street.” Nolan’s fellow detectives don’t much like him (with the exception of Brewster, whom Nolan mentored) and perhaps even fear him a little, but they unhesitatingly close ranks behind him.

Nolan silences a silent witness.

The station’s new captain, Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), isn’t convinced the shooting was accidental, but until evidence is found to the contrary, grudgingly accepts Brewster’s report—after throwing Nolan’s record in his face and warning him to stop thinking with his trigger finger. Gunnarson may be an honest cop, but he seems content to sweep Nolan’s mess under the carpet rather than deal with the unwanted publicity an internal investigation would create. That doesn’t stop him from chewing Nolan’s ass over this latest incident: “Either you’re gonna start using judgment, Nolan, or you can climb back into uniform and grow a new set of brains out in the daisy field.” When Nolan smugly “apologizes” for putting the department in a spot, Gunnarson responds in words that are all too rife with contemporary relevance: “There’s no spot. You were a police officer acting in the line of duty. Nobody gouges us for that as long as I’m in this office. We gave you a gun and the authority to use it. One is no good without the other. They don’t know that out there. So they’ll scream blue murder until the next time they need a man with a badge.”
Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) is less credulous than the police, knowing a bent cop when he sees one, and sends word through a pair of private detectives with the entertaining monikers Fat Michaels and Laddie O’Neal (played respectively by Claude Akins and Lawrence Ryle) that he would greatly appreciate the opportunity to question Nolan about the stolen money. The minatory pair (who will dog Nolan’s footsteps throughout the film) initially try the friendly approach. But when Barney contemptuously blows them off, they waste no time applying pressure on him by intimidating his girlfriend, Patty Winters (Marla English).

We always hurt the ones we love.

Patty, as it happens, is the only person who accepts Nolan unreservedly, even though he bullies her as he does everyone else in his orbit. Possessive and jealous in the extreme, he forces Patty to quit her job as a scantily clad cigarette girl because he doesn’t like the thought of drunken louts eyeballing her alluring figure. He drags her to a model house that he’s thinking of buying, showing off its modern furnishings and appliances as if they represented every woman’s conception of wedded bliss. His “sweet talk” comes off like a wheedling sales pitch: “Look at this. It’s a Beauty Queen Kitchen, the whole thing. Everything’s automatic: electric garbage disposal, dishwasher, and up here we have an electric stove, three burners…” In his masculine arrogance, he envisions Patty as mere housewife and sexual object—whether she desires such a future or not. While Patty lounges in the living room contemplating that domestic premise, Nolan sneaks out to the back of the house, where he buries the blood money like a dog hiding a bone.

Nolan may think he has everything under control, but his troubles soon mount. In addition to having an ill-tempered mob boss on his back, Nolan must cope with a deaf mute who wanders into the police station bearing a note that he witnessed the bookie’s shooting—and that it was by no means accidental. Nolan intercepts the note and subsequently visits the deaf man’s apartment in hopes of buying him off, but this effort takes an unexpectedly dark turn. Meanwhile, Nolan’s increasingly erratic behavior has aroused Brewster’s suspicions, and when the latter finds incriminating evidence against his friend and tries to arrest him, Nolan nearly adds cop killer to his resume. Now on the run—and completely unmoored from whatever moral scruples he may once have possessed—Nolan is doubly dangerous, a fact made painfully clear to Packy’s private eyes, to Brewster and Patty, and to the boys in blue hunting him down. Nolan’s final trajectory plays out in underworld hideouts, anonymous bars, public swimming pools and, ultimately, the model home where he had stashed the 25 grand. He discovers far too late that crime pays, but only if you’re willing to die for it.

Nolan pays a reluctant visit to the underworld.

Summary Judgment
Shield for Murder is an estimable addition to the lineup of rogue cop films that appeared in the early fifties, including Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Prowler (1951) and, of course, Rogue Cop (1954). They might be more accurately termed rogue detective films, as their protagonists typically held that rank (The Prowler excepted). The motivations of these guardians of the law gone bad varied from film to film. Revenge was the stimulus in The Big Heat (1953), psychosis in On Dangerous Ground (1952). That old standby, greed, resides within the dark heart of Shield for Murder’s Barney Nolan.

As a distinct subgenre of the crime/noir film, these movies pose intriguing and important questions about corruption and brutality among those charged with upholding the law. Policemen had typically been portrayed in overwhelmingly positive terms throughout the thirties and forties, but America’s postwar mood of disillusionment, plus the Kefauver Committee hearings of the 1950s—which exposed the corrupt ties between city and state governments and organized crime—helped create an atmosphere in which more nuanced depictions of law enforcement were possible.

Detective Brewster confronts the ugly truth about his pal Nolan.

Screenwriters Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins adapted the eponymous novel by William P. McGivern, whose other books include Rogue Cop and The Big Heat. McGivern’s work typically focused on corruption of one form or another in political, union and civic ranks. Novel and film both make the implicit point that corruption endures only when it goes unchallenged. Nolan’s peers on the force may believe themselves to be “pure,” but they are in fact enablers for turning a blind eye to his larcenous and homicidal instincts. Scenarist Higgins also made a career of crime, so to speak, specializing in the creation of conflicted characters on both sides of the law. His name is signed to the screenplays of such pantheon noirs as T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) and many others.

The direction was jointly shared by Howard W. Koch and the film’s star, Edmond O’Brien. It was Koch’s first directorial effort; his other films included Big House, U.S.A. (1955), The Girl in Black Stockings (1957) and The Last Mile (1959), all of which demonstrated a fine command of B-movie dynamics. O’Brien subsequently directed a 1958 episode of Schlitz Playhouse and the edgy noir Man-Trap (1961). It would be interesting to learn how O’Brien and Koch split the directing chores, and who was more responsible for the film’s overall pace and tone. It’s tempting to assume that O’Brien invested his work behind the camera with some of the famous intensity he manifested in front of it. No matter how they divvied it up, the direction is expressive and efficient, and occasionally quite stylish. A case in point is the scene in which Packy Reed summons Nolan to his home and offers to “hire” him to find the money, knowing full well the detective took it, but offering him a face-saving way to return it. Their verbal sparring is given a visual correlative in the form of a televised prizefight that culminates in one of the boxers landing a thunderous knockout punch, neatly foreshadowing the fate that will likely befall Nolan should he remain recalcitrant.

Reflections in a double bourbon.

Another remarkable sequence unfolds in a cocktail lounge where Nolan is drowning his anxieties in a few double bourbons and half-heartedly fending off sexual overtures from an enigmatic bottle-blond tramp played by Carolyn Jones. The setting, atmosphere and dialog evoke the mood of loneliness and sexual yearning that can be found in any bar in any city on any evening. The blonde’s opening line neatly sums up her quarry: “You know what’s wrong with mirrors in bars? Men always make hard eyes at themselves.” Nolan plays hard to get, but her persistence and obvious sexual availability eventually loosen him up, although she momentarily gives him a jolt when, having learned he’s a detective, innocently asks, “Did you ever kill anybody?” 

Nolan is half-attracted and half-repelled by her, but realizes she provides good cover for a murderous cop on the run, and after a few more doubles they’re locking lips with sleazy abandon. Nolan seems more than ready to spend the night with her when he shakes off the booze long enough to remember his priorities. He cons Fat Michaels and Laddie O’Neal into meeting him at the bar, ostensibly to negotiate the return of Packy’s money, but really to administer payback for having strong-armed his girl. When they arrive, Nolan catches them off guard and savagely pistol-whips them senseless. The beatdown is staged mainly off camera, but the gruesome sounds of impact and the fast cutting between Nolan’s twisted face and the terrified patrons is more unsettling than if all the blows had actually been shown. Needless to say, the blonde’s dreams of carnal fulfillment have also been deep-sixed.

Brewster’s attempted arrest of Nolan is also strikingly staged. Although he gets the drop on Nolan, the more experienced detective quickly turns the tables and jams his revolver against the younger man’s head. In a remarkable two-shot, Brewster’s face in the foreground is that of a man resigned to his imminent execution, while Nolan’s looming face in the background is hard and filled with murderous resolve. The moment is held for a few suspenseful beats: Nolan cocks the hammer, but will he pull the trigger? Ultimately, he comes to his senses and cold-cocks Brewster instead. Yet he will have no compunction about trying to kill the cops who come gunning for him during the breakneck chase and shootout that culminates with spectacular irony on the front lawn of Nolan’s dream house.

Nolan comes unhinged.

Shield for Murder may not be as polished or prestigious as more venerated bad cop films, but it somehow emerges as the most indelible, thanks to its gritty tone, blunt social criticism, quirky characters and O’Brien’s feral intensity. The versatile, Shakespearean-trained actor was a bona fide noir icon, never better than with a gun or a drink in his hand and the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was unmatched at portraying average Joes who land themselves in dire straits by succumbing to their worst impulses, and then go off the rails in convincing and spectacular fashion. O’Brien was rarely better than as Barney Nolan, once a good cop whose ideals have been eroded by his compulsion to acquire the trappings of success and willingness to do literally anything to achieve it. As repugnant as the physical violence he employs toward this end is the psychological violence he metes out to the two people closest to him: Patty and Brewster. But Nolan has gone so far down his crooked road that they no longer really exist for him as individuals in their own right. Nolan doesn’t care about being liked or loved. He cares only about Nolan. And that twenty-five grand.

Fingering the Fifties
• Nolan’s offhand remark to a uniform cop to “go home and beat your wife” is a stark indictment of the decade’s cultural complacency regarding domestic violence.
• The police reporter Cabot’s use of the word “wetback” in the police station speaks volumes about the era’s embedded racism, especially within law enforcement and the media.
• The model home Nolan covets speaks to the postwar boom in mass-produced tract housing that transformed the greater Los Angeles area in which the film takes place.
• Nightclub cigarette girls garbed in dominatrix-style outfits.

Nolan clutches a down payment on a dubious future.

Crime reporter Cabot phoning his editor: “Eddie, I know it’s a story. I also know these guys. They clam. Once a cop pulls a trigger, it’s one big secret society.”

Mark Brewster [when he discovers Michaels and O’Neill harassing Patty]: “What’s this little act about?”
Fat Michaels: “We’re friends of her friend.”
Mark: “Well, listen, friend, the next time you so much as talk to Miss Winters I’ll hammer that private badge into your navel.”
Fat Michaels: “Just another misunderstanding.”
Laddie O’Neil: “The time has come when we are no longer welcome.”

Patty Winters: “What is it, Barney? What is it that makes you hate like that? How can I work for people? How can I keep friends when you slap them around?”

Barney Nolan: “For 16 years I’ve been living in dirt, and take it from me, some of it’s bound to rub off on you. You get to hate people—everyone you meet. I’m sick of them. The racket boys, the strong arms, the stoolies, the hooligans. I’m through with them all.”

Mark Brewster: “I’ve watched him change over the last few years. He’s not the same man he was. He’s like concrete. The older he gets, the harder he gets.”

End of the line.

Directors: Howard W. Koch, Edmond O’Brien; writers: Richard Alan Simmons, John C. Higgins; producer: Aubrey Schenck; cinematography: Gordon Avil; editor: John F. Schreyer; music: Paul Dunlap

Edmond O’Brien (Detective Lt. Barney Nolan); Marla English (Patty Winters); John Agar (Detective Sgt. Mark Brewster); Emile Meyer (Capt. Gunnarson); Carolyn Jones (Beth); Claude Akins (Fat Michaels); Lawrence Ryle (Laddie O’Neil), Herbert Butterfield (Cabot, police reporter); Hugh Sanders (Packy Reed); William Schallert (assistant D.A.); Richard Deacon (the professor); David Hughes (Ernst Sternmueller)

Marla English with cinematographer Gordon Avil.

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