The Big Nowhere (to be seen) is a new short-run feature that will run for eight separate installments, all penned by Melbourne-based writer Andrew Nette. The aim of this column is to focus on the best noirs that most people have never heard of and what they tell us about what film noir is, looking at plot, production and reception.
American actor Edmond O’Brien had a long and varied career, one which included a Broadway debut in 1936 (at age 21), an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and a role in Sam Pekinpah’s 1969 classic The Wild Bunch. The rest of his filmography included several well-known film noirs, including The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949) and D.O.A (1950). He also appeared in some not so widely known and regarded noirs, among them Shield For Murder (1954). Shield For Murder is not a great film production wise, but as bad cop film noir goes, it’s as dark and twisted as they come.
Shield for Murder wastes absolutely no time getting into the meat of its story. It opens with Lieutenant Barney Nolan (O’Brien) a 16-year veteran of the police force shooting a bookmaker in the back in a dark alley. After robbing the bookmaker of $25,000, Nolan fires his gun in the air to make it look like his victim was resisting arrest and that he shot him accidently as the man was running away.
Nolan wants to use the money to get out of the force and away from the dirt and sleaze of the big city and start a nice middle class life in the suburbs with his girlfriend Patty (Marla English), a nightclub worker. The same night that he kills the bookmaker he takes Patty to a house he wants to buy for them and while she is checking out the mod cons he slips away to hide the money in the backyard.
Nolan’s loyal partner, Brewster (John Agar) believes his story about it being an accidental shooting, as does his Captain of Detectives (Emile Meyer). But no sooner does it look like Nolan is going to get away with his plan than things start to unravel. First, the dead bookmaker’s boss, a gangster called Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) sends two hired killers, Fat Michaels (Claude Akins) and Laddie O’Neil (Lawrence Ryle) to inquire whether Nolan knows anything about where the money went and suggest it’s in his interests to see it is returned promptly.
Next a witness, an elderly deaf mute man who we see watching the bookmaker’s killing from his apartment window in the opening scene, comes forward. Nolan goes to the old man’s apartment with the intention of buying him off but when the old man turns him down, Nolan panics and kills him. Nolan makes it look like an accident, unaware that the old man has written down an eyewitness testimony to the crime. Brewster finds the statement and realises his partner is dirty. He takes it to the Captain, who initiates a citywide manhunt for Nolan.
Nolan tries to get Patty to pack and leave with him to Argentina but first he has to get the money without falling foul of Reed’s goons, or his partner and the cops.
1954 was a good year for bad cop films.
Rogue Cop, released that year, focuses on a cop on the Syndicate payroll who experiences a crisis of conscious when he is pressured to dissuade his brother, a witness in a murder, from testifying. William P McGivern wrote the script, one of several film noirs based on his books, including The Big Heat (1953), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and Shield For Murder. There was also Pushover, in which a police detective (Fred MacMurry) investigating a bank heist begins an affair with the girlfriend of one of the robbers (Kim Novak), who persuades him to kill her boyfriend so they can escape with the take. Probably the best-known film noir bad cop is Orson Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan in amovie he also directed, Touch of Evil (1958), and to whom O’Brien shares a strangely similar appearance in Shield For Murder.
Shield For Murder was one of two films O’Brien directed in partnership with Howard W. Koch, who did not exactly shine as a director but went on to have a successful producing career with credits including The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and The Odd Couple (1968). Shield For Murder is certainly not the most polished of films production wise. For instance, you can clearly see the shadow of a boom in the opening scene, some of the performances are flat and a couple of small aspects of the story don’t make sense.
But there is a blunt force power to its narrative that works and it features possibly the nastiest depiction of a cop who has gone bad you’ll see in a classic film noir. “Barney, how’d you make it so fast?” Brewster says when he arrives at the scene of the bookmarker’s shooting. “I shot him,’”deadpans Nolan. His descent into cynicism and corruption is alluded to but not dwelt on. Sixteen years a cop, “living in dirt and some of it has rubbed off,” Brewster muses upon finding out his partner is guilty of murder. Nolan shows no remorse about killing the bookmaker and stealing his money. He doesn’t try and justify what he has done or make it right. His only pre-occupation is how he can escape and carve out a chunk of the consumerist American ’50s middle class dream for himself and Patty.
My comments about the production values aside, Shield For Murder has a couple of great scenes. One of these takes place in a bar where Nolan is drowning his sorrows with a bar fly who is trying to pick him up (Carolyn Jones aka Morticia Adams from The Adams Family). Michaels and O’Neil try to take him to see Reed, to which Nolan responds by savagely beating them unconscious with the butt of his pistol, while the camera focuses on the faces of horrified patrons and staff looking on. There’s also an amazing sequence involving a shoot out in a crowded public pool between Nolan and a heavily bandaged Michaels.
A tale of a man struggling to get out of a web of deceit of his own creation and only finding himself getting more and more entangled, this film is well worth seeing. Unfortunately, catching it is not easy. It streams on–line on sites like Amazon and grey DVD with versions of the film taped off the TV or old VHS cassettes surface for sale from time to time. Word is New York DVD label, Kino Lorber are planning to release a copy at some point in the future, so keep your eyes on their site for details: http://www.kinolorber.com/about.php
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer, whose work on film has been published widely. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, forthcoming in early 2016. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @pulpcurry
The header image for this series modifies a photo from the Harold Paynting Collection at State Library of Victoria and is used by 4:3 under a CC BY 2.0 license.