18 August 2004 | bmacv
Edmond O'Brien as bad cop in brutal Eisenhower-era look at police corruption
In Shield for Murder (a movie he co-directed with Howard Koch), Edmond O'Brien plays a Los Angeles cop `gone sour.' Bloated and sweaty, he's a sneak preview of another bad apple Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. In a pre-title sequence, he guns down a drug runner in cold blood, relieves the corpse of an envelope crammed with $25-thou, then yells `Stop or I'll shoot' for the benefit of eavesdroppers before firing twice into the air. When his partner (John Agar) arrives, there's only a few hundred dollars left on the body, and it looks like a justifiable police action though O'Brien's shock tactics have already drawn the unwelcome attention of his new captain (Emile Meyer).
O'Brien wants the money to buy into the American Dream to put a down-payment on a tract house, furnished (oddly enough) right down to the table settings. It's a bungalow to share with his girl, Marla English, as well as a handy place to bury his cash in its yard. But a couple of things go wrong. First off, a local crime boss wants back the loot O'Brien ripped off and dispatches a couple of goons to retrieve it. Then, though there were no eye-witnesses to the murder, there was in fact an eavesdropper an old blind man whose acute hearing picked up a sequence of shots that don't add up to the official story. When this good citizen decides to tell the police what he heard, O'Brien decides to pay him a nocturnal visit....
Based on a novel by William McGivern (who also wrote the books from which The Big Heat, Rogue Cop and Odds Against Tomorrow were drawn), Shield For Murder embodies some of the shifts in tone and emphasis the noir cycle was showing as it wound down. Its emphasis is less on individuals caught up in circumstance than on widespread public corruption; its tone is less suggestive than ostentatiously violent. The movie ratchets up to a couple of brutal set-pieces.
In one, O'Brien, knocking back doubles at the bar in a spaghetti cellar, is picked up by a floozie (Carolyn Jones, in what looks like Barbara Stanwyck's wig from Double Indemnity). `You know what's the matter with mirrors in bars?' she asks him. `Men always make hard faces in them.' While she eats, he continues to drink. When the goons track him down there, O'Brien savagely pistol-whips one of them (Claude Akins) to the horror of the other patrons who had come to devour their pasta in peace. Later, there's an attempted pay-off (and a double-cross) in a public locker-room and swimming-pool that ends in carnage. It's easy to dismiss Shield For Murder it has a seedy B-picture look and a literalness that typified most of the crime films of the Eisenhower administration. But it's grimly effective almost explosive.