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.)
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.”
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.
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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 blond 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.