November 23, 2021

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

Poster - Shield for Murder (1954)
Now Playing: 
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  


  1. "Dame-Hungry Killer-Cop Runs Berserk" - any movie with a tagline like that has to have SOMEthing going for it, even if it does sound a bit like overkill. Both O'Brien and Jones were excellent actors (I think Jones was really underrated), and I always enjoy watching them. What I like about a lot of 1950s noirs is how grungy and cynical they were, as if daring to look under the flip side of the rock of 1950s culture. Many of them have downbeat endings (eg, Private Hell 36) that go against the grain of the decade's optimism, as if willing to look harder at the world around them.

    1. Yes, there was definitely a dark undercurrent to the supposed suburban bliss of those post-war years, and Hollywood's crime dramas tapped it very well. ANYONE was capable of the most heinous acts in order to score big. It wasn't "trust but verify," it was "trust no one." The poster and taglines for Shield do indeed go over the top, sensationalizing what turns out to be a pretty sophisticated (by Hollywood standards) portrait of a man having the mother of all breakdowns.

  2. Interesting review, brian!
    DOA might be the only film of Edmond O'Brien that I've seen! I may have to give this one a look at, if anything for the scene with Carolyn jones!

    1. Hi John! The Jones scene is one of several that are worthwhile, as is O'Brien's overall performance as his schemes backfire and he becomes increasingly unglued.

  3. Thanks for the exceptional review of an overlooked (well, overlooked for me at least) noir! I need to seek this out. I couldn't help but notice that the theme of purchasing a tract house was a big point in another overlooked noir, Tension (1949), with Richard Basehart and Audrey Totter. I wonder how many times the theme of escaping the city for the suburbs has been employed? Just a thought...

    1. Escaping to the suburbs, owning a home with a white picket fence and having 2.5 children seems to be a recurring theme of '50s nostalgia, and at least these two films bear out that there was something to it. I haven't seen Tension in awhile, and had forgotten that this particular American dream cropped up in it too. Thanks for visiting!