Shield For Murder (1954)

Shield For Murder (1954) is a violent crooked cop bad-lieutenant style savagely enjoyable classic spaghetti cellar film noir starring a heaving Edmond O'Brien as a mentalist officer with a bend on for the dark side.

It's the mid 1950s and all is roaring forward into a bright future, but on the streets of the noir city it's a different story, where one man is bending the American Dream outta shape with every slug, snog and gamble.

A beautiful and even darker twin to the other great bent and copper movie of the moment which was Pushover (1954), with Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak. It's not debatable whether or not you want the cop to get the money and the woman. 

In the brooding corridors of urban noir, Shield for Murder, a collaborative directorial effort helmed by Edmond O'Brien and Howard Koch, thrusts audiences into the visceral underbelly of Los Angeles, where O'Brien's portrayal of a cop gone awry serves as a chilling harbinger of moral decay and nasty noir cop rage.

Bloated and drenched in perspiration, O'Brien, in a prelude to Welles' corrupted lawman, executes a drug runner in cold blood, the metallic tang of betrayal clinging to the air. With a deft sleight of hand, he liberates an envelope bulging with avarice—$25,000—before bellowing a hollow warning into the night. His partner, portrayed by John Agar, arrives in the aftermath, the spoils dwindling and the veneer of a justifiable police action barely holding. Emile Meyer's disapproving gaze, donning the mantle of a new captain, pierces through the thin veil of righteousness.

Driven by aspirations of the American Dream, O'Brien yearns to convert the tainted lucre into a suburban haven—a tract house complete with furnishings down to the minutiae of table settings. His girl, embodied by Marla English, and the clandestine burial of ill-gotten gains anchor his dreams. Yet, the sinister dance unfolds. A local crime lord demands the return of the pilfered loot, dispatching henchmen to retrieve what rightfully belongs to the underworld's coffers. Simultaneously, an old blind man, the unwitting eavesdropper, becomes a potential threat, his acute hearing betraying a discordant symphony in O'Brien's orchestrated narrative.

Adapted from William McGivern's novel, Shield for Murder encapsulates the evolving noir ethos, a harbinger of the genre's twilight era. Shifting its focus from individuals ensnared by circumstance to a canvas of pervasive public corruption, the film eschews subtlety for overt violence, reflecting the stark realities of its narrative universe. The crescendo of brutality crescendos in searing set-pieces.

Bad lieutenant Edmond O'Brien enraged at the sexualisation of his girl in Shield For Murder (1954)

In a dimly lit spaghetti cellar, O'Brien, drowning in double pours, collides with a femme fatale, Carolyn Jones, whose words echo like an ominous refrain. The lurid tableau unfolds with a brutal pistol-whipping in the presence of horrified patrons— an unholy communion of pasta and savagery. Subsequently, a locker-room and swimming-pool metamorphose into a crucible of pay-offs and double-crosses, culminating in a crescendo of carnage.

Dismissed by some as a seedy B-picture, Shield for Murder defies facile judgment. Its grim efficacy lies in its unapologetic portrayal of an era steeped in moral decay—an explosive testament to the shadows that lurk beneath the surface of societal veneers, echoing the ominous refrain that noir, even in its fading embers, remains a volatile force.

Shield For Murder's (1954) headline grabbing taglines say it all:

  • Every searing page becomes a savage scene as the best-selling shocker sledge-hammers the screen!
  • Thrill after thrill hits you where you feel it most!
  • Here's the brutal story of a killer-cop and the dough and dames he murdered for!
  • A wild trigger finger... a lust for big money... and a weak spot for fast blondes hurled him from the straight-and-narrow to a crooked one-way road!
  • The Story Of A Killer-Cop Who Used His "SHIELD FOR MURDER"
  • So savage, so stark, so vicious, it'll make your skin crawl!
  • If ever a picture was crammed with guts, this is it.
  • Dame-hungry killer-cop runs berserk!

Yes, the theme of crooked or corrupt police officers was a recurring and popular motif in 1930s cinema, particularly in crime films and film noir. The 1930s marked the era of Pre-Code Hollywood, a period before the enforcement of the Production Code, which allowed for more explicit and morally ambiguous storytelling. During this time, filmmakers explored darker and more cynical narratives, and stories involving corrupt law enforcement officials became a prevalent subgenre.

Here are a few examples of 1930s films that feature crooked cop stories:

"The Beast of the City" (1932): Directed by Charles Brabin, this crime drama explores corruption within a police force as it battles organized crime. The film delves into the compromises and ethical dilemmas faced by law enforcement officers.

"The Racket" (1928) and its remake "The Racket" (1931): The 1931 version, directed by Lewis Milestone, tells the story of an honest police captain's efforts to bring down a powerful crime lord. The narrative highlights the challenges of combating corruption within the police force.

"I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" (1932): While not focused solely on corrupt cops, this film directed by Mervyn LeRoy features a corrupt justice system and the abuse of power, highlighting the challenges faced by the protagonist.

"The Mayor of Hell" (1933): Directed by Archie Mayo, this film revolves around a reform school and depicts corrupt practices within the institution, including crooked officials and abusive treatment of inmates.

"The Thin Man" (1934): While primarily a mystery-comedy, this film directed by W.S. Van Dyke includes elements of police corruption as part of its plot, showcasing the complexities within law enforcement.

"Bullets or Ballots" (1936): Directed by William Keighley, this crime film features Edward G. Robinson as a police detective who goes undercover to expose corruption within the police force and organized crime.

These films often portrayed a distrust of authority figures and institutions, reflecting the social and political climate of the time. The theme of corruption within law enforcement continued to be explored in later decades, becoming a defining element of the film noir genre in the 1940s and 1950s.

The prevalence of films about crooked cops in the 1940s and 1950s can be attributed to a combination of social, cultural, and historical factors. The film noir genre, which gained popularity during this period, often explored darker and more cynical themes, including corruption within institutions such as law enforcement. Here are several reasons why films about crooked cops were made during the 1940s and 1950s:

The aftermath of World War II led to a sense of disillusionment and a questioning of traditional values. The war had exposed corruption and moral ambiguities on a global scale, and this atmosphere of cynicism found expression in films.

Film noir, a style characterized by its dark and atmospheric style, often portrayed a morally ambiguous world where crime, corruption, and betrayal were common. Crooked cops became central figures in these narratives as they added to the overall sense of moral decay.

The 1940s and 1950s saw a shift in the portrayal of urban environments in cinema. Filmmakers began to explore the gritty and realistic aspects of city life, and stories about corruption within law enforcement were reflective of the challenges faced by rapidly growing and changing urban centers.

The film noir genre was influenced by hardboiled detective fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, written by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. These stories often featured morally ambiguous protagonists and corrupt authority figures, providing source material for film adaptations.

In the shadows of a city draped in perpetual dusk, Shield for Murder unfolds its tale of corruption and malice, and at its heart, a cop named O'Brien—hardened by 16 years of wading through the filth, where the line between the righteous and the damned blurs into a murky haze.

Before the opening credits dare to flicker, O'Brien's descent into the abyss begins, coerced into snuffing out a bookie's life, the chilling echo of a cold pistol shot piercing the urban cacophony. 

"For 16 years, I’ve been living in dirt," he growls, the smoke from his cigarette melding seamlessly with the shadows. "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 strongarms, the stoolies, the hooligans. I’m through with them all." 

In the dim glow of a streetlamp, his resolve crystallizes—to claw his way out of the abyss and grab the shortcut to the American Dream, $25,000 clasped in his vice-like grip.

Yet, the dream proves elusive, a haunting spectre clad in shadows. A relentless gangster, hungry for the greenbacks, emerges from the obsidian backdrop, forcing O'Brien into a danse macabre. Justified killings punctuate his grim resume, his best friend straining not to cast a shadow of doubt upon their kinship. The dark underbelly of O'Brien's world reveals its contours, where murder is but a currency traded in the alleyways of despair.

In the pursuit of redemption—or perhaps oblivion—O'Brien snuffs out a witness, a deaf and dumb man, extinguishing any flicker of sympathy that might have glimmered in the eyes of the audience. A symphony of violence ensues at a dimly lit eatery, O'Brien's pistol-whipped justice painting the establishment in hues of terror. The air thickens with the scent of gunpowder, the patrons oscillating between paralyzed shock and frenzied hysteria.

“See that detective over there? [Pointing to Brewster]. “You know what I told him? … I told him the next time he wants to rob a store, to come here and talk to me, cops know how it’s done. I also told him that if he got caught again, I’d personally see that he was locked up until he was old and grey. I’ll make you the same bargain. [Reaching into his wallet and giving the kid some cash] “Here, pay for those things [the stolen items] and take them home.”

As the plot thickens, the tapestry of O'Brien's transgressions unravels. Evidence, like a shadowy specter, emerges, linking him to the deaf man's abode. The Captain, portrayed with gritty authority by Meyer, permits the revelation of the Murdering Cop to cascade across the city's consciousness. The police reporter, a purveyor of ink-stained truths, unleashes the sordid tale upon the front page, etching the words "Murdering Cop" into the city's collective conscience.

In the labyrinthine corridors of noir, Shield for Murder navigates the twisted alleys of morality, and as the ink dries on the tabloid pages, O'Brien's fate is etched into the city's ledger—a sordid sonnet to corruption, greed, and the ceaseless yearning for a dream, forever dangling on the precipice of the abyss.

“Do you know what’s wrong with mirrors in bars? Men always make hard eyes at themselves. [Pauses] Do you know there’s a people in the jungle that believes a mirror steals your spirit away? [Looking in the bar mirror] Maybe it’d do me some good, my mother always said I had too much spirit.”
Carolyn Jones, though gracing the narrative with her presence in just a solitary scene, emerges as a poignant luminary, a solitary star amidst the ensemble cast. In the symphony of characters, she assumes the role of a melancholic siren—a sad and lonely alcoholic whose portrayal transcends the clichés often associated with such characters in cinema.

Within the confines of this singular scene, Jones delivers a performance that resonates with a quiet, yet palpable, desperation. The temptation to overemphasize the slurring of words and indulge in contrived gestures, often associated with portraying alcoholism on screen, is deftly eschewed by Jones. Instead, she navigates the nuances of a seasoned drinker, one who has acclimated to the spirits as both a companion and a refuge. Her portrayal is a masterclass in subtlety, revealing the character's inner turmoil without resorting to exaggerated theatrics.

Carolyn Jones in Shield For Murder (1954)

In this poignant juncture, Jones's character becomes a captivating distraction for Nolan, the protagonist, momentarily diverting him from the inexorable descent into his own personal abyss. The scene unfolds as a delicate dance between two individuals, each grappling with their own demons in their unique ways. Jones, in her portrayal of the sad and lonely alcoholic, serves as a mirror reflecting the shared struggle of two souls attempting to flee from the shadows of their own existence.

The magnetic interplay between Jones and the character of Nolan transcends mere dialogue; it becomes a silent ballet of shared pain and fleeting solace. Their attempt to escape the relentless pursuit of their inner demons binds them together, if only for a transient moment in the overarching narrative. In the vast expanse of the film's emotional landscape, Jones's contribution resonates as a singular, poignant note—a testament to the power of nuanced performances in capturing the essence of the human experience.

In the nascent stages of his directorial foray, this particular cinematic endeavor marked Edmond O’Brien's inaugural attempt at helmanship—a filmic baptism, if you will. While his subsequent and final directorial outing, the intriguingly titled "Man-Trap," stands commendable in its own right, it is the cinematic offspring of this first endeavor that emerges as a gem, albeit one adorned with a few rough-hewn facets.

“For sixteen years I’ve been a cop, Patty. For sixteen 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! Maybe this jam will turn out for the best after all. Patty, you and I will go away, get a fresh start somewhere. I’ve got the money… [Pauses, realizing he’s admitting to having stolen the money] … I had some saved… hurry Patty, will ya?!”

Streets of film noir in Shield For Murder (1954)

As the discerning eye navigates the celluloid landscape, it becomes evident that this cinematic creation, despite its occasional cinematic blemishes, exudes a certain raw charm. The cinematography, though intermittently inconsistent, manages to capture fleeting glimpses of visual splendor. However, the discerning viewer might notice the occasional misstep—a fleeting moment where the omnipresent shadow of a boom microphone betrays the veil of cinematic illusion. Such imperfections, while evident, are forgiven amidst the greater tapestry of O'Brien's directorial initiation.

Blessed with a certain noir sensibility, O'Brien infuses the narrative with an undeniable attitude that permeates every frame. The central character, Nolan, a manifestation of malevolence, is not devoid of nuanced complexity—a testament to O'Brien's directorial acumen. The film, characterized by its leanness and unapologetic brutality, navigates the murky waters of cynicism with a finesse that belies its director's fledgling status. The narrative, propelled by a particularly harrowing beating scene and an unconventional shootout, veers into uncharted territories, adding a refreshing layer of novelty to the noir canvas.

While the leading lady, English, may be adorned with loveliness, her thespian prowess, regrettably, does not match the film's overall intensity. However, the cinematic deities seem to compensate for this imbalance with the presence of Carolyn Jones, whose role as a boozy bar blonde injects a welcome surge of vitality into the narrative. Emile Meyer, a stalwart in his own right, adds an extra layer of charisma to the cinematic proceedings.

The impetus toward realism exerted a transformative influence on the hard-boiled novel, diverting its trajectory into a distinctive course. Unlike the plethora of tales inspired by the archetype of the world's premier consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, the genuine private investigator seldom finds themselves entangled in murder investigations and is frequently constrained from doing so. In certain jurisdictions, the private investigator is typically bereft of the privilege to bear arms. Their professional pursuits often entail the mundane tasks of delivering legal documents or tracking down missing persons. Authors grappled with these incongruities for a considerable duration, including Dashiell Hammett, who had previously toiled for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

In Britain, crime writers have ostensibly embarked on a narrative odyssey that delves into the milieu surrounding them. This paradigm shift begets a corpus of work that is inherently disconcerting, where the concept of justice is not invariably meted out (and at times, not even clearly defined), the dichotomy of good versus evil has metamorphosed into an indistinct realm of "grey characters," crimes themselves are no longer sanitized affairs involving rare poisons or blunt instruments, and consequently, these modern tomes proffer fewer felicitous denouements, prompting readers to grapple with profound moral quandaries.

O'Brien's directorial ingenuity is particularly palpable in the film's pacing—an intricate dance of tension, release, and unexpected humor. The dialogue, crisp and taut, crackles with the energy inherent to the noir ethos. While the corrupt cop motif may not be revolutionary, O'Brien weaves a compelling narrative tapestry, each scene contributing something of substance or satisfaction to the overarching whole.

In the grand pantheon of corrupt cop noirs, including the likes of "Pushover" and "Private Hell 36," O'Brien may not be pioneering radical departures, yet he crafts a compelling and gratifying film that elicits that visceral charge characteristic of exemplary noir. Every scene, a tantalizing morsel of storytelling, weaves together to create an intricate tapestry of cinematic delight. In the realm of noir aficionados, this cinematic offering proves to be a delectable and satisfying feast—a testament to the tantalizing allure of this genre's timeless charm.

Charles D. Hall, an illustrious production designer whose indelible mark on the cinematic landscape spans decades, emerges as a luminary figure in the annals of film history. His formidable career, characterized by a mastery of atmospheric design and an unparalleled ability to imbue visual narratives with a haunting allure, reached its zenith during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Notably, Hall's artistic sensibilities were instrumental in shaping the iconic aesthetic of several seminal horror classics that have withstood the test of time. His role as the art director of cinematic milestones such as "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932), "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Black Cat" (1934), "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), and "One Million B.C." (1940) solidified his reputation as a maestro in the realm of atmospheric and evocative production design.

Intriguingly, as Hall traversed the later stages of his illustrious career, his penchant for innovation remained undiminished. A testament to his creative versatility, he embraced the technique of incorporating "found" objects and locations into his designs. This deceptively simple yet ingeniously effective approach not only added an authentic texture to his compositions but also underscored Hall's ability to seamlessly integrate the tangible with the fantastical.

A noteworthy manifestation of Hall's enduring genius emerged in his second-to-last feature film, the chilling horror opus titled "The Unearthly" (1957). Here, credited under the enigmatic pseudonym "Daniel Hall," the maestro once again wielded his creative wand, crafting a visual tapestry that resonated with an eerie and captivating ambiance. This final chapter in Hall's cinematic repertoire stands as a testament to his unwavering commitment to pushing the boundaries of artistic expression within the realms of horror and suspense.

In the realm of production design, Charles D. Hall's legacy endures as a haunting chiaroscuro, casting a spectral shadow over the corridors of cinematic history. His ability to evoke atmospheric transcendence and create indelible visual landscapes solidifies his place among the luminaries who shaped the very essence of the horror genre during Hollywood's golden era.

The post-war period saw increased scrutiny of authority figures and institutions. Films about crooked cops reflected a growing skepticism towards those in power and a willingness to question the integrity of traditionally respected institutions.

Many films of this era served as social commentary, reflecting and critiquing the social and political climate. By exploring corruption within law enforcement, filmmakers addressed issues of trust, justice, and the abuse of power.

The 1940s and 1950s also witnessed a series of investigations into corruption within law enforcement and other institutions. Real-life scandals and revelations may have influenced the thematic choices of filmmakers.

Some notable films of the era that depict crooked cops and explore themes of corruption include classics like "The Big Heat" (1953), "Touch of Evil" (1958), and "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). These films, along with others in the film noir genre, contributed to a nuanced and critical portrayal of authority figures, challenging conventional notions of heroism and morality in cinema.

Film Noir Books:

"Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style" by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward

"Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir" by Eddie Muller

"The Rough Guide to Film Noir" by Alexander Ballinger

Biographies and Memoirs:

"Ward Bond: A Comprehensive Biography" by Susan M. Kelly

"The Bad Guys: A Pictorial History of the Movie Villain" by Henry Nicolella and Art Silverblatt (Includes information on Edmond O'Brien)

Film History and Criticism:

"The Oxford History of World Cinema" edited by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

"What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting" by Marc Norman

Shield For Murder (1954)

Genre: Crime, Drama

Original Language: English

Director: Edmond O'Brien, Howard W. Koch

Producer: Aubrey Schenck

Writer: Richard Alan Simmons, John C. Higgins

Release Date (Streaming): Sep 1, 2016

Runtime: 1h 20m

Production Co: Camden Productions, Inc.

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