Tuesday, December 26, 2017


United Artists, 82m 6s

"Dame-hungry killer-cop runs berserk!" promises this film noir's theatrical poster. That tagline says a lot about this one. SHIELD FOR MURDER is a watchable entry in the noir genre, though disappointingly devoid of the style and technical craft of the category's best entries.

The apparent cheapness of the production leaps from the screen early, when the unmistakable shadow of a boom mic delivers a black eye to the film's opening segment. Opportunistic 36-year-old cop Barney Nolan (Edmond O'Brien) guns down a bookie in possession of a hefty $25K while deaf mute Ernst Sternmueller (David Hughes) witnesses the killing. Nolan attempts to cover his murderous tracks, but his stable mates are suspicious, and with excellent reason. Nolan has a dark history of abusing his authority. "Court maybe he'd have got 30 days," laments Nolan's protégé Mark Brewster (John Agar). Police reporter Cabot (Herbert Butterfield) has had it with Nolan's tactics and seems determined to reveal the truth about him.

Without surprise, Nolan's actions are motivated by an attractive woman who looks a whole lot younger than him. Patty Winters (Marla English) gets a classic film noir intro for a hot dame (legs first). She has just accepted a new position as a sexy cigarette girl, which seriously angers Nolan. Like most men, Nolan wants a good-looking woman on his arm, but no other man should notice her. He plans to relocate her from the decadent urban jungle to a new suburban home equipped with all the modern conveniences of the day. That is where that $25K stash is intended to become useful for Nolan, though its rightful owner Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) understandably would like his funds returned. All too aware of what really happened the night of the shooting, Reed gives Nolan the opportunity to return the money, but Nolan resists in the doomed hope of an easy life with Winters. As he feels his world combusting around him, Nolan delivers one of those speeches emblematic of the embattled noir protagonist:

"For 16 years I've been a cop, Patty. 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..."

By 1954, SHIELD FOR MURDER must have felt overly derivative to its audience. The screenplay co-authored by Richard Alan Simmons (FEMALE ON THE BEACH [1955]) and John C. Higgins (T-MEN [1947], RAW DEAL [1948]) draws from numerous "bad cop" noir films, including THE PROWLER (1951) and especially WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), both of which developed more textured protagonists. An assortment of other film noirs are referenced as well, i.e. the infamous stairway scene from KISS OF DEATH (1947), the sequence at a public pool from HE RAN ALL THE WAY (1951) and the accidental killing of someone who knows too much in SCANDAL SHEET (1952). Other noir films released in 1954 that focused on tarnished cops included PUSHOVER (1954), PRIVATE HELL 36 (1954) and ROGUE COP (1954).

The utilitarian nature of the compositions captured by Gordon Avil makes one wonder what ace cinematographers like John Alton or Nicholas Musuraca could have brought to the material. As directed by Howard W. Koch and Edmond O'Brien, there is little visual style to observe in SHIELD FOR MURDER other than the frequent use of low camera angles so typical of the film noir style. Under their tutelage performances range from satisfactory to perfunctory, although I love the presence of a spunky blonde barfly (Carolyn Jones) who does not even know who bruised her arm. The sequence that features Nolan and the blonde leads to a terrific beatdown when Nolan flattens goons Fat Michaels (Claude Akins) and Laddie O'Neil (Lawrence Ryle). There is also a fair amount of intense gunfire, especially during the pool sequence, the film's definite highlight. As an actor, O'Brien is at his paranoid best in the film's final act, even if the end result of the concluding "on the run" sequence is entirely predictable.

The single-layered Blu-ray disc available from Kino Lorber is consistent with their usual high standards for re-mastered HD presentations, framed at 1.78:1 (the packaging indicates 1.75:1, the same aspect ratio indicated as the original theatrical scope on IMDb.com). A batch of trailers is it as far as the extras go.