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June 21, 2016

Shield for Murder

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Edmond O'Brien and Howard W. Koch - 1954
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Shield for Murder was based on a novel by William McGivern, who had also written the novel, The Big Heat. Fritz Lang's film came out in 1953. What made me think of that film was not the shared author of the two films' source novels, but Carolyn Jones' brief appearance in Shield for Murder. Normally a brunette, Jones is seen here as a blonde, a floozie sitting and drinking alone at a bar, her eye on O'Brien who comes in alone, trying to figure out how he can cover up another murder he committed. Jones seems to be made up to look like Gloria Grahame, the good bad girl of The Big Heat, so much so, that I started to wonder if Jones was the cheaper, in every way, "sister under the mink".

I found no information regarding how the responsibility for directing Shield for Murder was split or shared by O'Brien and Koch. It's possible that after appearing in two films helmed by Ida Lupino, that O'Brien decided to give directing a shot. One other film, Man-Trap from 1961, was directed solely by O'Brien. This is also Koch's debut directorial credit. Even with several credits directing both modestly budgeted studio films and television serial episodes, Koch is probably better remembered for his producer credits, most famously for Frank Sinatra, and being head of production at Paramount during the mid-Sixties.

O'Brien plays a corrupt cop who's suspected of murdering a bookie, and making off with the $25,000 the bookie was carrying. O'Brien's partner, John Agar, who looks up to O'Brien as a mentor, is sure O'Brien is innocent, just as he was with the several other people killed in the line of duty, but is forced to investigate this latest incident. O'Brien's hoping to buy a new house if the suburbs to share with young nightclub hostess Marla English. Especially for contemporary viewers, seeing O'Brien with English probably elicits thoughts of O'Brien being overly optimistic. A little research indicates that O'Brien, 39 at the time of this film, was extremely popular among female film-goers during this time.

Marla English is introduced with the camera tilting up from her feet, emphasizing the fishnet stockings she's to wear as a "cigarette girl" at the nightclub. One immediately imagined the kind of fish that English could catch with little effort. O'Brien immediately flies into a rage, forcing English to change clothing prior to a visit to his dream home. That house is so full of bric-a-brac and tchotchkes that it suffocates any opportunity to make the place seem more personal.

Visually efficient, but not stylish, with a story that may strike the jaded contemporary viewer as unoriginal, Shield for Murder should be seen for the performances of its cast. Especially when not speaking, but with the use of his facial expressions, one can see O'Brien's stage training and background in Shakespearean roles. Going from out of control anger to panic, I began to wonder what we might have missed in not seeing O'Brien as Macbeth. There is also the fun of seeing character actors, Emile Meyer as O'Brien's police captain, a young Claude Akins as a mob enforcer, William Schallert as an attorney, and an uncredited Richard Deacon helping O'Brien escape to Argentina.

The bar where Carolyn Jones meets O'Brien is also a restaurant that eventually gets a few hungry customers. Claude Akins and partner show up, trying to get the loot they know O'Brien stole of behalf of their boss. O'Brien, once again, lets loose with his anger, fiercely beating the two men. The film cuts to the faces of the other restaurant patrons, looking at the scene of violence in horror. One of the patrons, a man, has strands of spaghetti hanging out of his mouth. It's this scene that makes me think that Shield for Murder can be enjoyed for the visceral pleasures of watching a dirty cop in action, finally getting caught, yet simultaneously, if unintentionally anticipating some of Guy Debord's arguments in The Society of the Spectacle almost a decade in advance. Then again, it may not be a good idea to overthink a film that features a key character who reminds everyone that he's stone deaf, only to reveal a bit later that he had somehow gotten by in life as a street accordion player.

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Posted by peter at June 21, 2016 03:51 PM