Sometimes a movie needs only one great scene for me to fall absolutely in love with it. In Shield for Murder (1954), it’s when Edmond O’Brien stops into an Italian restaurant and finds himself at the bar sitting next to Carolyn Jones. She’s one of those types you see in the older movies, petite and blonde, but with fingers like claws. She’s a barfly; she tries to get him to buy her a drink, or at least talk to her. He has other things on his mind.
Most guys would love to rub up against Jones in a bar. But O’Brien is involved in some bad stuff. He’s Barney Nolan, a police detective; he’s killed a bookmaker’s stooge who happened to be carrying $25,000. Thinking no one was watching, Nolan took the money. He’s a mix of hardboiled cop who cares for nothing, and a normal, working-class guy who just wants to settle down in a house he can call his own. But his reputation for violence has raised suspicion about him. He’s starting to sweat.
Jones, meanwhile, keeps working on him. “You aren’t so tough,” she says. She teases him, saying he doesn’t know how to look the part. She tells him to hold his cigarette a certain way, and to squint his eyes. In short, she’s telling him to look more like Humphrey Bogart, the blueprint for toughness in those days. Nolan plays along; he chuckles. A while later he notices a couple of gunmen who have been trailing him. They’re working for the bookie, and they’ve got balls enough to walk right into the restaurant. He walks over to them and, with the butt of his revolver, smashes them both into bloody heaps. Confronted by real toughness, Jones can only scream in horror.
O’Brien, who’d spent time on the New York stage in productions of Shakespeare, was one of the few actors who could pull off such a scene. He didn’t look particularly dangerous – he could’ve been a high school football coach, a bus driver, the owner of a butcher shop – but he was burly and looked like he could do some damage if riled.
Shield for Murder was based on a novel by William P. McGivern, a pulp writer whose stories provided the basis for some excellent crime movies of the period (The Big Heat, Odds Against Tomorrow). O’Brien shared the director’s credit alongside Howard Koch. According to press releases, O’Brien rehearsed the actors, while Koch took over once filming began. O’Brien said at the time that he hoped to become a full-time director, and that he’d prefer to be known as “a new director, rather than an old leading man.”
The screenplay, credited to Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins, is slick enough that an entire story could’ve been made of the deaf man who witnesses Nolan kill the bookie’s runner. Another movie could’ve been made of the character played by John Agar, a younger detective who idolizes Nolan but suspects he’s done something foul. That none of the film’s moving parts get in the way of each other is a testament to old-school moviemaking. And the dialogue? Superb. “You’ve had enough for one day,” Nolan tells one particularly abrasive cop. “Now go home and beat your wife.” Then there’s the older cop who grouses, “I’ve gotten old in this office, with a snail’s eye view of man’s inhumanity.” Good stuff.
And what of Carolyn Jones as the blond tootsie? She’d been in features for about a year – she’d had roles in The Big Heat and House of Wax - and in the next few years she’d work for such directors as Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. She’s near brilliant here. Some actresses would play the barfly role for laughs, others would aim for pathos, others would go for sleaze. She hits all three.
In the original trailer for the film, which is included in the excellent new DVD available from Kino Lorber, the ad campaign made it look as if Nolan left his fiancée for a fling with Jones. That’s not what the movie is about at all, but publicists probably wanted a clip of Jones in the trailer, just for some enticement. Why not? All is fair in marketing, especially when a cutie like Jones is concerned.
Consider, too, the explosive shootout between Nolan and the gunman played by Claude Akins. Akins is one of the fellows Nolan clobbered in the restaurant; with his head bandaged, he tracks Nolan down at a YMCA swimming pool where they open fire on each other. It’s madness, as swimmers run for cover, hide under bleachers, or dive into the pool to avoid the rain of gunfire. This shows how far Nolan has fallen; he doesn’t even care if innocent people get hit.
Contrast this to the way Nolan slouches around the police station, leaning on filing cabinets and listening to others talk with a look of thinly disguised disdain. He’s a veteran cop, he’s seen it all, and he doesn’t break a sweat for anything.
Then there’s a surprisingly light scene where Nolan brings his bride to be (Marla English) to the new tract home he plans to buy. He’s like a big kid as he proudly shows her all of the fixtures. The life he plans for them, complete with modern kitchen appliances and a two-car garage, sounds delightful; he’s invented it in his mind, perhaps to occlude the grotesque reality of his life as a crooked cop.
Is this the real Nolan? A gentle, friendly guy who happily tells his girlfriend to kick her shoes off and take a nap on the new couch? Granted, he uses this moment to sneak out and bury his stolen money in the backyard, but his glee at showing off his new home is infectious. For a moment, you almost wish the guy’s dream of a normal home life could come true.
Everyone respects Edmund O’Brien as an actor, but is he truly appreciated for all of his great work? Shield For Murder takes place during his peak years, shortly after his turns in movies like White Heat, D.O.A., and The Hitch-Hiker, but before his great comic performance as Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock in The Girl Can’t Help It. The same year he played Barney Nolan, he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa. By the 1960s he was still working regularly, but was slipping down to sixth or seventh billing. He’d become one of those reliable types, the kind of actor who could deliver a solid performance, but wouldn’t steal the spotlight from the bigger stars. Director Don Siegal claimed O’Brien’s eyesight and memory were troubling him as early as China Venture (1953), when he was not yet 40. This was perhaps a harbinger of the Alzheimer’s disease that would ultimately kill him at 69, and might explain why O’Brien contented himself with smaller parts. His plan to become a director wasn’t to be, either. At his best, though, O’Brien was a sort of genius.
In Shield For Murder, he’s surrounded by capable performers, including Jones, Akins, Agar, Richard Deacon, Vito Scotti, William Schallert, and in the role of the mute, a very touching Ernst Sternmuller. Yet, it’s O’Brien who owns this one. When he meets his grisly end outside of his beloved dream home, collapsing from a bullet wound onto the unplanted lawn, you’d be forgiven if you felt some sympathy for him.
“No actor who plays himself is a happy person,” O’Brien once said. If so, the man who could sing ‘Rock Around The Rockpile’ in The Girl Can’t Help It, as well as play the tortured, murderous cop in Shield For Murder, must have been happy for a while, indeed.