Obscure Noir: Shield for Murder (1954)

“These cops are often tempted to break a lot of rules. They got too much gas on their stomach and too little money in their pockets.” — Shield for Murder

The opening shot of Shield for Murder shows the film’s protagonist, Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien) walking purposefully down a dark street.  There’s something about the way he pauses in a doorway to stick an unlit cigarette in his mouth that tells us — even before he jams a silencer onto his gun – that he’s not a fellow with whom to be trifled.  Minutes later, we learn that our impression is dead-on – literally – as Barney steers a local bookie into a nearby alley and plugs him in the back.  After rifling through the man’s pockets and withdrawing a sizable wad of cash (25 grand, to be exact), Barney yells out, “Stop, or I’ll shoot,” then fires two shots in the air.  It turns out that Barney is a veteran police detective.  It also turns out that his every action was viewed by a man peering out of his window from an apartment overlooking the alley.

This is the foundation of Shield for Murder, an underrated, seldom-discussed, but wholly time-worthy offering from the film noir era.  Starring O’Brien, it also marked the actor’s debut as a film director.  (O’Brien would later direct an episode of the television series, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars in 1958, and the 1961 feature film Man-Trap, which he also produced.)

Edmond O’Brien in a tense moment with his lady love, played by Marla English.

The feature’s other major players are Patty Winters (Marla English), the love of Barney’s life; Mark Brewster (John Agar), a young detective to whom Barney has served as a mentor and friend; and Capt. Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), Barney’s gruff but supportive boss. The film takes the audience through a fascinating view of a complex film noir character, an officer of the law who is both capable of tenderness and compassion and brutal violence.

A veteran of the police force for nearly two decades, Barney Nolan is many things to many people.  To Patty, a young and beautiful cocktail waitress, he is a source of strength and sanctuary. She explains to Mark Brewster in one scene, “I know he’s rough, strong and impulsive. When I’m with him, I don’t have to think anymore. All I have to do is feel.”

To Mark, he is a role model and advisor. But as Mark describes him, Barney is also a troubled man, one who has changed over the years. “He’s like concrete,” Mark says. “The older he gets, the harder he gets.”

It’s never a good thing when you’ve got a gun to your partner’s head.

In an early scene, Barney shows a flash of his former self when a young man is brought into the police station, nabbed for stealing a bag of groceries. Within moments, Barney correctly deduces that it is the boy’s first crime, that his father is dead, and that he stole the food to feed his family. After exacting a promise from the grateful lad that he will never steal again, Barney gives him money to buy the groceries and sends him on his way. But a later scene shows quite a different Barney. In a bar, the detective encounters a pair of private dicks who were put on his trail in an effort to retrieve the cash he took from the dead bookie. Enraged by the recent discovery that the dicks had followed Patty home and harassed her the night before, Barney first meekly agrees to give up the stolen money, then proceeds to viciously pistol-whip both men in front of a crowd of shocked bar patrons.

Perhaps the most revealing key to Barney’s persona comes from Barney himself, as his life spirals irrevocably out of control, even as he tries desperately to salvage it. “For 16 years I’ve been a cop,” he tells 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. The racket boys, the strong arms, the stoolies, the hooligans. I’m through with them all.”

Shield for Murder was based on a book by William P. McGivern, who also wrote three other books later made into well-done films noirs:  The Big Heat, Rogue Cop, and Odds Against Tomorrow. Like these three novels, Shield for Murder offers fascinating, well-rounded character studies set against a backdrop of seamy reality and an overarching sense of hopelessness. Although seldom included in lists of must-see films noirs, Shield for Murder is a first-rate example of the era.


A significant aspect of the plot of Shield for Murder centers on a model home that Barney plans to buy in anticipation of proposing to Patty. The home comes completely furnished – the manufacturer of the furniture – Kling — is prominently mentioned in the film, and is also included in the film’s credits. Kling Factories was a family-owned furniture business started in 1911 by Arvid Kling, which was bought by Baumbritters in the 1960s after Arvid’s death. In the 1970s, the business was sold to Ethan Allen.

Shield for Murder features small roles by two performers who would go on to find popularity on television – a blonde Carolyn Jones, who gained cult status as Morticia on The Adams Family, and Richard Deacon, who was beloved by many as Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 29, 2011.

13 Responses to “Obscure Noir: Shield for Murder (1954)”

  1. […] this feature is one of my favorite “obscure” noirs – in fact, you can read more about here, in one of my earliest posts. It’s one of those noirs that you rarely hear about, and just as […]

  2. Shield for murder is a very entertaining movie that seems to get undeserved ly poor reviews. I love it, and what about the excellent music score by Paul Dulap

  3. […] Obscure Noirのサイトでは、埋もれた名作として、『事件の死角』を高く評価している。この作品のモデルホームに登場する家具を提供したKlingという家具メーカーについてのメモは興味深い。 […]

    • Thank you so much for your comment!! (I had as much translated as I could: On the site of the site, as a buried masterpiece, “dead angle of the incident” highly appreciated. A note about the furniture maker, Kling, which furnished furniture to appear in the model home of this work is interesting.) I thought the Kling reference was interesting, too!

  4. I love this movie it is underrated and something that is never mentioned.
    the first rate music score by Paul Dunlap

  5. “(For information on hard-to-find films noirs, including Shield for Murder, leave a request in the comment field and receive a free list.)”

    –Thanks for a great writeup of Shield For Murder. Just watched it and I was well rewarded. Much appreciated, and if you’re still checking the site and have an up to date list, I’d love to receive it. Cheers,

    • Thank you so much, Blair! You’re looking for an up-to-date list of obscure noir recommendations, or just any good noirs?

      • Thank you for getting back to me so quickly! I’m looking for, as you put it, “an up-to-date list of obscure noir recommendations.”

        I’ve been digging in to noir, generally, for the last 6 months and have found the big ones (Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon) and most of the well-known second tier ones (Thieves’ Highway, Pickup On South Street, Gun Crazy, The Big Combo) and have been joyously working my way the fine noir that is a little harder to learn of (99 River Street, Woman on the Run [how is that not well-loved?], Act of Violence), but it’s only with the help of marvelous blogs such as yours that I’ve begun to find films as little known and welcome as Shield for Murder.

        Anything you care to pass on I will greatly appreciate. Best, Blair

  6. […] I can’t help it – there are so many good ones out there. And Shield for Murder (1954) is definitely on the […]

  7. […] Edmond O’Brien was born on September 10, 1915, in New York City. After seeing a Broadway play as a teenager, he determined to be an actor, and he later dropped out of Fordham University to accept a scholarship from New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse Dramatic School. He honed his craft playing stock in Connecticut and Yonkers, then landed his first Broadway role, in Daughters of Atreus. This was followed by several more Broadway productions (including John Gielgud’s Hamlet), and after a chance meeting with Orson Welles, he was hired for several of the Boy Wonder’s radio programs. A few years later, while O’Brien was appearing in Maurice Evans’s Henry IV, Hollywood beckoned, and he was tapped for his big screen debut, playing a bit part as an inmate in Prison Break (1938). Less than a decade later, he stepped through the shadows into noir, starring with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946). For more on Shield for Murder, click here. […]

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