Movie review: Shield For Murder (1954)

What did you watch: Shield For Murder, a 1954 crime noir starring Edmond O’Brien, who also co-directed the film with Howard Koch.

Hey, I’m a fan of MST3K. Is that… John Agar. Yes. He was in a few movies that ended up on MST3K.

Shield For Murder starts off dark right off the bat: Barney (O’Brien) accosts a man on the street and escorts him to an alley, where he shakes the man down for $25,000. Barney then shoots the man, and then announces he’s a police officer when a crowd arrives, including his partner, Mark (Agar). He tells Mark that the victim was a perp who tried to start something and run and his gun accidentally went off. Unbeknownst to both Barney & Mark, a deaf & mute man in a coachhouse apartment had witnessed the whole thing.

Back at the precinct, Mark covers for Barney with their captain while Barney witnesses his fellow detectives deal with petty thieves, gangster molls covering for their shady boyfriends, and gamblers. The captain chews Barney out for what could have been a regular arrest, and shoos him out of the office.

Barney goes to visit his girlfriend Patty (Marla English) only to discover that she has gotten a job as a cigarette girl (don’t ask, you have to watch these kind of movies to see what I mean) and flips out. Barney wants to whisk Patty to a boring suburban suburban life, where’s he’s even planned to buy her a home (where he hides the money he stole).

Meanwhile, Mark anguishes over paperwork and ethics after being visited by two “private detectives” working on behalf of a powerful bookie friend of the man Barney killed. There’s also a newspaper reporter working on the police beat hovering over Mark and questioning the fellow detectives’ tactics of knocking around suspects, and whether they’re going down a rough compromised road that the sullen Barney may have gone down.

There’s some back and forth with the private eyes, bookie, Barney, and especially with Mark and Patty, as Mark presses Patty to see if his partner & hero Barney may have actually stolen some money from the gangsters. Barney feels pressured but feels no one will pin him for an actual crime, until the deaf mute walks in to the precinct with a written note  saying he witnessed the murder. A now panicky Barney shoos the witness away by promising to look into it. Later, he stops by the witness’ apartment and kills him, not knowing the deaf mute guy had written a description of an officer (he must not have able to see) shaking down a man and then shooting him before staging a scuffle.

When Mark is called by a patrolman to look at what appears to be an accidental death of the deaf mute, he discovers the notepad the witness had written in, and realizes that Barney was there and killed the man.

Barney goes to a restaurant to relax and calls Patty,  who tells him that the private eyes had stopped by to grill her about the money. So he calls the bookie and tells him to send the private eyes to the restaurant. When they show up, he pistol whips them in front of the other patrons. He goes home and Mark is waiting for him, confronting him about the murders.

Barney, in a scene that made me think of Point Break, holds Mark at gunpoint intending to kill him, but knocks Mark out instead and makes a run for it. He’s a wanted man now, and there’s 30 minutes left in the movie.

That’s not a good sign. Oh, it’s okay. The rest deals with heartbreak from Patty and Mark as the captain informs everyone that they must capture or take down Barney, lest the public lose trust in their protectors. Then it’s Barney negotiating with lowlife criminals to buy his way out of town, possibly taking up all of the money he stole. But he has to get that money, and everyone is on his trail.

So, is it noir? Well, sure, but it’s more of a morality play, and it’s only slightly more subtle than the over the top than “The Hoodlum.” You almost think that Barney has made a dual career as a crooked cop, but he displays some tough love with a hoodlum in training, the kind of guidance he once shared with the adoring Mark years ago. It’s his first shot (ha!) at reaching for a brass ring he’d never get from doing honest work, honest work being roughing up the petty criminals until retirement. Instead, it’s a race to find his money, not sure who he will be shooting at in order to escape: gangsters, or his fellow police.

Is it good? It’s pretty good; there’s some great tough guy talk, but some of it might be incredibly insensitive and cruel (“Go home and beat your wife,” he tells a patrolman. Uh, did I hear that right? Was that an in-joke between cops?) to some of your young ears. There’s also some great shots capturing some tension (especially between Mark & Barney). However, like I said above, when Barney goes on the run it’s another 30 minutes. Does a chase scene and shootout through a gymnasium full of 30 year old teenagers add to the excitement, or would those 30 minutes been more interesting if Mark’s disillusionment unfolded along with the mystery? It’s still worth checking out.

Anything about the cast? Well, John Agar appeared in some stuff that you’ve probably enjoyed on MST3K. Edmond O’Brien was a prolific character actor known for things like D.O.A. and the radio drama, “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” The co-director, Howard Koch, made a lot of b-movie crime movies, but as a producer he had his hands in some classics, like The Manchurian Candidate, The Odd Couple, both Airplane! movies, and the blockbuster Ghost. As for Marla English, she gave up acting for the married life not long after this movie was made; resist the urge to build a time machine to see if you were the one this 50’s curvy bomshell married.

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