Monday, June 18, 2012


In the year he earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa -- it can be assumed that three co-stars of On the Waterfront cancelled each other out -- Edmond O'Brien directed himself in this adaptation of a novel by William P. McGivern, who also provided source material for the late noirs The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow. Howard W. Koch, a co-producer of the picture, shares the directing credit, and I can't tell you who directed what. Which one allows the shadow of a boom mike or crane to crawl across the front of a building in the opening scene? Which one stages a remarkable shootout at a crowded high-school swimming pool between O'Brien and a head-bandaged Claude Akins? Which one shot the scene where Akins gets that early beating, a moment of appalling violence despite the absence of any gore because the camera focuses on O'Brien's expression of desperate rage as he pistol-whips Akins and a cohort for what feels like a full minute, cutting only to show the horrified expressions of other restaurant patrons? By no measure is Shield For Murder a polished film, but it probably shouldn't be. Had O'Brien more subtlety as a director or an actor the picture would lose much of its dark turbulence. He plays Barney Nolan, a plainclothes detective grown tired of his work. He's looking for a big payday and a new life and like a fool he thinks he'll get it when he murders a mob bookie with $25,000 on him and tries to cover it up by calling it a line-of-duty shooting of a fleeing suspect. As if the bookie's boss Packy Reed won't guess where the money went once it turns up missing. As if someone wasn't watching the whole thing happen, even if that guy, in a bit of pulpy melodrama, is a deaf-mute. The old man can still read and write, which the plot requires so our default hero, Barney's stolid protege (an inert John Agar) can discover a written account of the crime. Inevitably, Barney sows the wind and reaps a shitstorm, accidentally killing the mute while attempting to convince him to accept a bribe. Another great scene, whoever directed it, is when Barney pushes the corpse down a flight of stairs to simulate an accident, leaps over the body and bolts down a flight of stairs and out into the night. O'Brien is a house afire throughout, embodying the frustrated fantasies of a beaten-down audience and affirming their futility. I've said before that I consider him the definitive noir actor, noir for me being less about cool than about hapless passion and hopeless persistence. O'Brien is the opposite of cool, but the essence (or part of it) of noir. Like a clown in a slapstick silent, only made up in sweat rather than whiteface, he acts out and lashes out and gets his comeuppance as order inevitably prevails, only it isn't very funny and you don't cry, either. Shield For Murder may be O'Brien's definitive noir performance. Directing himself, it should have been, and the fact of his direction, whatever the actual extent of it, is an assurance that he knew himself as a performer and understood his genre. It's the nearest he comes to being an auteur and he lives up to the opportunity. He should've earned something for that, too.


John/24Frames said...

Just watched this for the second time and the film is an interesting mess, basically for all the reasons you mention like the boom mike and the idiotic shootout at the pool. Still, this is one of the most interesting bad cop movies. The film fascinates mostly due to O'Brien's sweaty, out of control performance. The beating he gives the two P.I's in the Italian restaurant is vicious; worthy of Tarantino. You can almost feel the blood spurting out all over.

Samuel Wilson said...

John, I liked the pool scene because it maximized the chaos O'Brien's character was spreading, though the motivation for it all is questionable. But the pistol whipping is definitely the standout scene for the way O'Brien/Koch extends the moral horror of Nolan's outburst. Shield for Murder almost needs to be a mess in order to have the effect it seeks, so we could call it an effective mess, too.