November 23, 2021

Not so Good Cop, Very Bad Cop: Shield for Murder

Poster - Shield for Murder (1954)
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Shield for Murder (1954)

Pros: Fine performances by Edmond O’Brien and Carolyn Jones; Memorable dialog.
Cons: O’Brien as an older, cynical cop is an unlikely boyfriend for the young and beautiful Marla English.

Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien) has been a cop for too long. As a former beat patrolman and now a detective, he’s seen it all, every nook and cranny of the seamy underside of life, and he wants out. Or is it that some rotten part of his soul has always been attracted to the city’s underbelly, and he’s finally had it seeing his own ugliness reflected back at him day after day? Whatever the reason, he’s so desperate to chuck it all, he’s willing to commit cold blooded murder and hide behind his detective’s shield to get away with it.

Nolan finds out through the grapevine that a bookie will be delivering a particularly rich payout -- $25,000 worth -- to his bosses on a certain evening. Nolan ambushes the man in a dark alley, shoots him in the back, relieves the body of the cash, then fires two shots in the air to attract attention. When Nolan’s colleagues arrive, including his partner on the detective squad, Mark Brewster (John Agar), he tells them that the bookie ran when he tried to arrest him, and he accidentally hit the man when he fired warning shots.

Barney Nolan (Edmond O'Brien) commits murder in Shield for Murder (1954)
"Whoa Barney, take it easy, that tickles!"

Brewster’s expression betrays his skepticism at Nolan’s sketchy story, but Nolan is his mentor, responsible for bringing him on the force, and Brewster wants to believe. Nolan’s boss, Captain Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), is exasperated -- the man has a history of shooting first and asking questions later -- but in the absence of any witnesses, he has no choice but to back his problematic detective.

It looks at first like Nolan is in the clear, but his problems have only started. The loot’s owner, mob boss Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) has hired two goons to track down the money, and they’ve zeroed in on the obvious suspect, the last man to see the bookie alive. To add to the crooked cop’s troubles, there was a witness -- an elderly deaf mute who saw everything from his tenement apartment window. But worst of all, Nolan’s dogged partner can’t shake his doubts over Nolan’s account of the shooting.

Even as the web of reckoning draws tighter around the beleaguered cop, he has dreams for his blood money -- to buy a tract house in the suburbs and escape with his girlfriend Patty (Marla English) from the corruption and grime of the big city.

At first, Patty isn’t sure what to think as Nolan drags her from the sleazy lounge where she’s working to show her the new home that’s to be their picket-fenced salvation. He’s got it all figured out for the two of them, and no crime boss or suspicious police colleagues are going to stand in his way. There’s a very subtle shot of the couple standing at the entrance of the model home as Nolan fishes out the front door key from its hiding place. A wooden trellis is in the foreground, the slats making it seem as if the two are trapped behind the bars of a jail cell.

Patty is swept away at the prospect of living in a brand-spanking new home with all the modern conveniences. But before long she will come to realize the heavy price of that suburban dream.

Marla English and Edmond O'Brien, Shield for Murder, 1954
Patty and Barney dream of life in the suburbs with a Frigidaire and a console TV.

One of the film’s implausibilities is the odd couple of Barney and Patty. Even taking into account the tendency of people with low self-esteem to make bad dating choices, they are a particularly mismatched pair. She is young and attractive, with her whole life ahead of her. He is middle-aged, overweight, cynical and controlling. The disparity is all the more striking when later in the film, Patty is being interviewed by the handsome and upright Detective Brewster -- you can’t help but think “she picked Barney over this guy?!”

But Shield for Murder does reveal a hint of goodness in Nolan that hasn’t quite rotted away. In a telling scene, a uniformed cop brings a juvenile delinquent into the precinct. Nolan brusquely waves the cop off, telling him to “go home and beat your wife.”

Faced with a brash, sneering teenager who seems determined to ruin his life, Barney sentimentally tries to bond with him and scare him straight at the same time:

“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 Nolan’s plans for a new life in suburbia start to go up in smoke, he struggles to maintain his facade of rough-edged goodness, and he retreats to a bar to nurse his anxieties. As he’s glowering over his drink, a lonely alcoholic woman (played to perfection by Carolyn Jones) sidles up to him with a unique pick-up angle:

“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.”

She has it only half right. Barney freely sold his soul for the price of a tract home, and now he can’t look at himself in the mirror. She has the misfortune of seeing the real man beneath the smirk when Packy’s goons show up at the bar. Nolan loses it and furiously pistol whips the men to the horror of the patrons. (In another subtle but neat touch, after Nolan has beaten the goons and he gives one last look at Jones’ character, grinning comic theater masks are visible on the wall behind him, as if they've been watching the performance and are smiling in approval.)

Edmond O'Brien and Carolyn Jones, Shield for Murder, 1954
"Have you heard this one? A cop, a priest and Morticia Addams walk into a bar..."

When the jig is finally, irretrievably up and Nolan’s fellow cops are looking to arrest him for murder, he crashes into Patty’s apartment and desperately tries to get her to drop everything and run away with him. Self-pity and denial pour out:

“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?!”

Having dug a grave-sized hole for himself, Nolan figures there’s nothing to do but keep digging. Spiraling from a rough-edged cop who’s been at it too long to the poster’s tagline of “a dame-hungry killer-cop” running “berserk” is fascinating to watch, and Edmond O’Brien gives it his sweaty, scowling all.

Over the course of a 40+ year career, Edmond O’Brien made the most of his doughy, “everyman” image, earning a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as Oscar Muldoon in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and appearing in such diverse films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939; his film debut), 1984 (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Seven Days in May (1964) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

O’Brien was Mr. Film Noir in the decade between the mid ‘40s and mid ‘50s, appearing in several of the most highly regarded films in the genre including The Killers (1946; with Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner), White Heat (1949; with James Cagney), and D.O.A. (1950; playing a nondescript accountant who solves his own murder). In Between Midnight and Dawn (1950), he also plays a cynical cop, but unlike Shield, his character gets to redeem himself.

Edmond O'Brien at the climax of Shield for Murder, 1954
Barney realizes too late that there's more to life than guns and money.

Although Shield for Murder was the last of O’Brien’s noirs, it was also a first for him  -- his first directing gig. O’Brien had become interested in behind-the-scenes work, and after Shield he formed a production company with his brother Liam, a playwright.

He explained in an interview, “Some [actors] don’t care about producing. All they’re interested in is acting, and that’s fine. But others, like [John] Wayne and [Burt] Lancaster have picked up enough technical knowledge and ideas on writing, directing and camera techniques to do a great job. They went out of their way to learn. So have I. My intention, eventually is to work myself out of acting.” [Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, McFarland, 2003, p. 500]

Despite his intentions (and thankfully for film posterity), O’Brien went on acting, and found only time to direct a couple of TV episodes in the late ‘50s, and one feature, Man-Trap, in the early ‘60s.

John Agar (Brewster) made his film debut in a minor role in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), then quickly graduated to second leads opposite John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Shortly after Shield for Murder, Agar’s career took a turn into B sci-fi movie territory starting with Universal-International’s Revenge of the Creature in 1955, followed by Tarantula and The Mole People for the same studio in 1957. Even cheesier and cheaper movies quickly followed after that -- The Brain from Planet Planet Arous (‘57), Attack of the Puppet People (‘58) and Invisible Invaders (‘59) -- and the die was cast.

Shield for Murder was Marla English’s first credited film role. She made only a relative handful of movies, but ‘50s sci-fi aficionados affectionately remember her from the strange and surreal The She-Creature (1956).

Marla English and John Agar in Shield for Murder, 1954
"Come on Patty, I've got something Barney hasn't got -- a contract with Universal-International."

And then there’s Carolyn Jones. Ms. Jones is in only one scene, but it’s such a poignant one that she stands out among all the other cast members as the sad, lonely alcoholic who distracts Nolan, if only for a moment, from his descent into hell. Actors often overdo the word slurring and awkward gestures when trying to portray alcoholics. Jones hits all the right notes of a long-time drinker who has acclimated to the stuff and puts on a pretty good show, but ultimately can’t hide her quiet desperation. The two of them are trying to run away from themselves, but in different ways. 

Jones had a very active career in TV and movies from the early ‘50s through the early ‘80s, but she is best remembered as Morticia in The Addams Family (1964-66).

Shield for Murder is a solid, sometimes brutal noir, enhanced by fine performances from O’Brien and Jones, and featuring more than a few memorable lines of dialog courtesy of screenwriters Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins.

Where to find it: YouTube | Amazon Prime  

November 12, 2021

Crooks vs. Creatures, Part 3: Creature from the Haunted Sea

Poster - Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Now Playing:
Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)

Pros: Robert Towne as an inept secret agent and Betsy Jones-Moreland as a glamorous gangster’s moll deliver some chuckles.
Cons: The rushed, ad hoc nature of the production is readily apparent.

This month I'm pleased to be participating in the Distraction Blogathon at Taking Up Room. Host Rebecca has invited fellow bloggers to write about a movie or list of movies that “have distractions in them, whether it’s a MacGuffin, red herring, dangling carrot or any other kind of hook.” (If you haven't already, click over to the blogathon page for many more cinematic variations on the theme.)

Back in 2020 I wrote about “Disguise, Distraction and Deletion in B-Movie Posters,” so distraction, at least as far as the marketing of films goes, is right up my alley. One of the prime exhibits in that post was the poster you see here for Roger Corman’s Creature from the Haunted Sea. Let’s just say there is nothing in the movie that even remotely resembles the owner of the giant clawed hand, which, for a kid back in 1961 trying to figure out what movie he should spend his hard-earned allowance on, was something of a distraction (I’m not saying I was that kid, and I’m not saying I wasn’t…)

But the distractions aren’t limited to just an exaggerated marketing campaign. Creature’s plot is full of distractions, charades and double crosses as an American mobster schemes to steal a fortune in gold from a group of corrupt Cuban military officers who looted the national treasury before fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Creature from the Haunted Sea is not only a good fit for the Distraction blogathon, it’s also a perfect fit for the third installment of my Crooks vs. Creatures series, featuring interesting mashups of crime, sci-fi and horror. Part One featured another Roger Corman produced low-budget shocker, Beast from Haunted Cave (with connections to Creature from the Haunted Sea we’ll get to later); Part Two looked at the offbeat, micro-budget saga of The Astounding She-Monster.

So this post is doubling as an entry in the Distraction blogathon and in my own Crooks vs. Creatures series. Somehow, I think Roger Corman, who never missed an opportunity to save time and money by reusing sets and doubling up on locations by shooting movies back-to-back, would understand.

Creature was the second time Roger had squeezed blood out of a stone as far as location shooting was concerned. In the late '50s, Roger, along with his brother Gene (also a producer), decided to dump their usual Southern California shooting locations for the exotic locale of Deadwood, South Dakota. To get the most out of the expense of transporting people and equipment halfway across the country, they made it a 2-for-1 deal, shooting two movies in quick succession with the same cast and crew. One was a conventional war picture, Ski Troop Attack (1959) and the other an oddball crime/sci-fi/horror mashup, Beast from Haunted Cave (1959). In Beast, a gang of crooks pull off a daring daylight bank job, only to encounter a mysterious monster in the woods when they try to make their getaway.

For Beast, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith dusted off a script he’d previously done for Corman, Naked Paradise (1957), and added a monster to give it maximum drive-in appeal. Both Naked Paradise and Beast feature an unwitting local outdoorsman who is hired by crooks to help guide them through rugged terrain and escape with their ill-gotten loot.

Lobby Card for Naked Paradise, 1957
In the beginning, Naked Paradise begat the Beast, and the Beast begat the Creature...

At the dawn of the ‘60s, Corman was at it again, this time locating to Puerto Rico to take advantage of “manufacturing” incentives that included film production. He simultaneously produced one war picture, Battle of Blood Island (1960), while producing and directing a sci-fi psychological drama, Last Woman on Earth (1960) on the island.

In his memoir, Roger recalled having such a blast shooting Last Woman that he impulsively decided to do another movie before pulling up stakes in Puerto Rico:

Last Woman was a two-week shoot. It was going so well and we were having such a good time that I decided to do another movie. I called Chuck Griffith in L.A. and woke him up. ‘Chuck, I need another comedy-horror film and you’ve got a week to write it,’ I said. … He was very sleepy and I wasn’t certain he understood completely the story line we discussed, but he agreed. I would use the same three leads from the first movie [Last Woman], plus pick up some local Puerto Rican actors. …

The story was truly insane: We are in the closing days of Batista’s Cuba in the 1950s and some of his generals are absconding with a chest full of gold and must get a boat to sail from Cuba in the middle of the night. The only man they can trust is an American gambler and gangster [Antony Carbone as Renzo Capetto]. He and his assistant [Robert Bean as Happy Jack Monahan] then plot to kill off the generals one by one, blaming a sea monster for the killings. The plan is to end up with all the gold. The trouble is there actually is a sea monster and it looks exactly like the one the gangster invented.” [Roger Corman with Jim Jerome, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Da Capo Press, 1990, p. 71]

The three leads from Last Woman that Corman brought over to Creature were Carbone, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Robert Towne. If there is any saving grace to this hurried example of Corman’s ad hoc moviemaking, it’s the presence of Jones-Moreland and Towne.

Robert Towne’s participation as an actor is yet further testimony to Corman’s “efficiency.” Towne is one in a long list of celebrated filmmakers and actors who got their starts working for Roger. An award-winning screenwriter, producer and director, Towne penned such ‘70s classics as Shampoo and The Last Detail, and won a best original screenplay Oscar for Chinatown.

At the time of Last Woman and Creature, Towne was a young writer trying to get into the film business. Corman, always on the lookout for promising talent, commissioned him to write the script for Last Woman. Towne was taking too long, so Roger decided to hustle him off to Puerto Rico to finish the script on location, and make him do double-duty as an actor for good measure. [Corman and Jerome, p. 70]

Even setting aside the script writing duties, this was a tall order for any actor, not to mention a first-timer. Last Woman was an intense, post-apocalyptic psychological thriller that had Towne vying with Antony Carbone for the affections of the last woman on earth, Betsy Jones-Moreland. In stark contrast Creature from the Haunted Sea was a goofy sci-fi comic opera featuring a jury-rigged sea monster that would make a five year old snort in disbelief.

Corman had the Midas touch as far as converting rough but promising filmmaking talent into Hollywood gold. He’d throw his wet-behind the ears proteges straight into the deep end, and more often than not they’d start swimming laps instead of sinking. While Towne was never celebrated for his acting, when Roger threw him into the acting pool, he tread water very nicely (but he did cover his bets by adopting an alias, Edward Wain, for these first two acting credits).

In Creature, Towne plays U.S. agent XK150, aka Sparks Moran, who is assigned to infiltrate Capetto’s gang and keep tabs on the stolen gold. Creature immediately lays all of its comic cards on the table as it opens with a close-up shot of a shoe-shine boy/secret contact buffing Moran’s canvas sneakers as he stuffs a message from headquarters into the agent’s sock.

Robert Towne as Agent XK150 in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Robert Towne does a perfect Nicholas Cage imitation... before Cage was even born!

In another bit of business, Moran, who has gotten himself hired as one of Capetto’s deckhands, finds an out-of-the-way place on the boat to radio back to HQ. He uses a makeshift radio made out of parts disguised as hotdogs and pickles (!?), but has to eat one of the parts when another gang member stops by and comments on how tasty his lunch looks.

Towne plays it perfectly straight as he delivers such lines as, “It was dusk. I could tell because the sun was going down.” and “As a trained espionage agent I could tell she was attracted to me.”

Moran immediately falls hard for Capetto’s glamorous “moll,” Mary-Belle (Jones-Moreland). A single sneer from Mary-Belle drives the men wild with lust. Jones-Moreland is at her aloof best in a scene where she’s sunbathing on the boat while a Cuban general tries to flirt with her through his interpreter.

Interpreter: “The general says, ‘good morning you gorgeous, beautiful creature.’”
Mary-Belle: “Would you ask the general to remove himself from my presence?”
Interpreter (to the general): “She says, ‘good morning to you general!’”
[Then, after the interpreter has conveyed more of the clueless general’s salacious compliments…]
Mary-Belle: “Would you tell the general that I feel he would be most at home slowly barbecuing over a hot spit?”

Later, Jones-Moreland vamps it up as she sings the Creature from the Haunted Sea theme song in a sort of winking homage to the torch song numbers that were a staple of ‘40s hard-boiled crime thrillers.

Robert Towne and Betsy Moreland-Jones in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
Sparks fly as Moran tries to convince Mary-Belle to run away with him.

Not everything in Creature is comedy gold, however (or even silver or bronze for that matter). One of Capetto’s men, Pete (Beach Dickerson), is a nitwit whose specialty is making animal noises (furnished by a sound library that seems to have been ripped from a Tarzan movie). The act gets old real fast, and audience patience wears dangerously thin when Pete discovers the love of his life -- a homely middle-aged woman who is one of the few inhabitants of the island where the boat has run aground. Unfortunately, the film wastes precious minutes running that unfunny relationship into the ground.

When Corman made his impulsive decision to extend the stay in beautiful Puerto Rico and make another movie, he naturally went to his go-to writer at the time, Charles B. Griffith. Griffith had already penned over a dozen movies for Corman, and was someone who could be relied upon to cook up a script in no time.

Corman wanted to do a comedy-horror picture because of the surprise success the duo had achieved earlier with two black comedies, A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). Due to the insane schedule, Griffith had no choice but to once more recycle the Naked Paradise narrative of crooks hiring a guide to help them make off with their loot.

While Creature does have some inspired moments with Moran, Mary-Belle and the Cuban generals, there are too many dull stretches and sophomoric comic bits that would make a middle-school thespian blush with embarrassment. It kept the cast and crew basking in the tropical sun for another couple of weeks, and it looks like it was a blast to make, but it taxes the audience’s patience with its rushed script and in-your-face cheapness.

And then there’s the distraction of the Creature itself. It’s so ridiculous looking that the first time I saw the film, I thought it was one of Capetto’s men made up in a hastily improvised suit to scare the Cubans away for good. “Hasty” and “improvised” are the operative words for it, but for the purposes of Corman’s and Griffith’s cracked story, it’s supposed to be the “real” sea creature that coincidentally starts following the boat even as Capetto is plotting to bump off the Cubans and blame it on an imaginary monster.

Betsy Moreland-Jones, Anthony Carbone and Beach Dickerson in Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
The cast discuss their plans for an extended two-week stay in sunny Puerto Rico.

While Griffith was able to deliver a script at the last minute, Corman's former go-to monster-maker, Paul Blaisdell, was unavailable. Blaisdell had created imaginative (and inexpensive) monster suits and effects for several of Roger’s low-budget wonders of the ‘50s, including The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), Day the World Ended (1955), It Conquered the World (1956) and Not of This Earth (1957), but by the early '60s Blaisdell had become disillusioned with the film industry.

Instead, Roger tapped Beach Dickerson, the actor who played Pete, to work up a costume:

“Then Roger said to me, ‘We have to make a monster [that] can run on land and swim underwater.’ … I said, ‘What do you mean, we? Every time you say ‘we,’ you don’t do a thing.’ He said, ‘Beach, I know you can do it, so don’t worry about it.’ I said, ‘How much money are we talking about Roger?’ He said, ‘Well, for a monster that can run on land and swim underwater, I think a hundred and fifty dollars should be sufficient.’ ‘Including materials?’ ‘Of course including materials!’ Well, this kid -- Bobby Beam, another actor in the movie -- and I made a monster … and the thing held up. For one hundred and fifty dollars! …
[We] stole army helmets and stacked them to form its face. We draped its body in oilcloth, to give it a sleazy look, and we gave it fangs -- we cut out holes and pasted in the teeth. We got two tennis balls and a ping pong ball and cut them in two -- that was the monster’s eyes. Then we draped it in steel wool. That monster was seven and half feet tall -- we spent a fortune on steel wool. Those were the good old days.” [The Movie World of Roger Corman, J. Philip di Franco, ed., Chelsea House, 1979, p. 23]

It looks jaw-droppingly comical, which I suppose is fine for a movie that plays things strictly tongue-in-cheek. Except that Creature’s marketing at the time (exhibit A: the poster) gave no hint that the film was a comedy, unlike its predecessors, A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors. It’s perhaps an indication that Corman wasn’t sure that Creature could stand on its own two comic feet like the other films. Over the years, it hasn’t garnered quite the same sort of cult reputation as its cousins.

Still, Creature does have Robert Towne’s dead-pan schtick and Betsy Jones-Moreland's diva act going for it. And that monster -- ya gotta admire the sheer audacity of that bug-eyed abomination!

The comical looking Creature from the Haunted Sea, 1961
"Darling, you look like a hundred and fifty bucks!"

Where to find it: You can cast your fishing line just about anywhere and hook the Creature; e.g., here and here.