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Edmond O’Brien Does It All … Directing and Terrorizing in Shield For Murder (1954)

Some villains chew the scenery, quite often stealing a film from the top billed actor. Then there are other heavies who are the top billed actor playing it straight without the tongue in cheek comments and the knowing wink at the camera. Honestly I love them played either way but how often do we get to see that same actor directing himself as we do Edmond O’Brien in what might be the most vicious role of his award winning career?

Welcome to the world famous Villain Blogathon kindly put together by Kristina over at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Seriously, who doesn’t love a great villain? Without the ones we love to hate and maybe even cheer for, heroes would have no place in the movies. All of this brings us to my selection in this years roll call of nasties, Mr. Edmond O’Brien.

From the outset of this black and white release co-directed by Howard Koch, Eddie is no good. Taking a mob courier for a “walk” down a back alley in the dead of night he shoots his unarmed prey down using a silencer. He’ll strip the man of an envelope containing 25K and after removing the silencer will scream “Halt!” into the night and fire shots into the air. Looks like he’s just an ordinary cop taking down a suspect on the run and that’s the way he’ll report it to police captain, Emile Meyer and his young partner on the force played by John Agar. What Eddie doesn’t anticipate is that his entire crime was witnessed by an elderly man living above the alley who just happens to be deaf and dumb.

“When are you gonna stop thinking with your trigger finger?”

Apparently Eddie has a long list of kills as a police officer. The scenes that take place in the precinct have a very Detective Story flavor to them. A day in the life feel. Agar is the young cop that Eddie has tutored and while Agar believes his teacher to be a great cop he has his doubts as to the number of killings to his credit. Aside from Agar, Eddie doesn’t appear to have to many friends on the force though he does have a girl he’s looking to settle down with played by Marla English. We’ll get a quick glimpse of Eddie’s temper when he discovers she’s moonlighting as a cigarette girl at a Gentleman’s Club.

This will prove to be just the tip of the iceberg where Eddie’s temper is concerned.

Eddie’s got big dreams  for Marla and himself but the mob is going to get in his way when they send a couple of thugs played by Claude Akins and Larry Ryle to muscle him over the missing money. Eddie isn’t easy to push and calls a meeting with mob boss Hugh Sanders telling him to back down. Threats have clearly been laid down by Sanders and Akins let’s it slip to Agar that a lot of money is missing from the dead man.

Eddie’s collar is going to be getting steadily tighter as the film goes on for it’s fast paced 82 minute running time. Agar’s getting suspicious and wants nothing better than to prove the rumors of Eddie being dirty wrong. That notion is going to take a serious hit when the deaf man who witnessed the killing turns up dead after he attempted to tell his story to a police officer not realizing the killer and the cop were one and the same.

So yes Eddie is in over his head and he’s about to direct/deliver what might have been one of the most vicious beatings caught on film up to this point in movie history. While in a bar looking to drown his sorrows he’s open to flirting with saloon gal Carolyn Jones but when Akins and Ryle turn up in the bar he delivers a hellacious pistol whipping upon the two thugs that surely left movie goers of 1954 nauseous. A credit to O’Brien the director is the fact that it’s all left to our imaginations thanks to his close ups of himself delivering the beating and Miss Jones screaming into the camera as the scene goes on for a second or two longer than one might expect with that thumping sound effect as he continues to beat his adversaries half to death.

This act of violence clearly puts Eddie on the run and Agar looking to bring his friend and mentor to justice. For his part Eddie has become a mad dog and like any dog gone rabid is going to have to pay the ultimate price by the time the final credits roll.

To the best of my recollection I first saw this film over 30 yeas ago on late night television and it’s always remained in my movie memories for it’s violence of the times and the fact that O’Brien was no longer playing the undercover cop looking to take down Cagney’s Cody Jarrett but rather a cold blooded killer in the same mold as Cagney/Jarrett.  It also stayed with me  because it had Claude Akins in an early role. An actor I grew up liking thanks to his many roles in both late night movies and the many television series’ he guested on or headlined over his long career playing both the villain and the big hearted good guy. Kind of a lesser known Ernest Borgnine.

Thankfully I would see the film again years later I believe on TCM and as of late on blu ray thanks to a release by Kino Lorber who continue to put out some fine Noirs for the fans. One thing you won’t find from Kino is the original poster. That will take some hunting but they do exist and no you can’t have my copy.

The only other film of O’Brien’s career that saw him behind the camera was Man-Trap released in 1961. Co-director Koch made his debut with this entry and would go on to film the equally tough Big House U.S.A. the following year. He’d move on to producing countless westerns, Neil Simon comedies and Rat Pack pictures.

Complimenting O’Brien, Agar and shapely Marla English are the character players that fill out the casting of Shield For Murder. Alongside supporting players Akins, Jones and Meyer are William Schallert, Richard Deacon and Vito Scotti. While you might not know their names immediately I guarantee you you’ve seen all three on numerous occasions provided you’re a fan of movies and television from the 1950’s forward.

Be sure to follow the links above to my blogging friends who again have taken the time to organize this wonderful celebration of the actors who keep us enthralled at the movies. By my count this is the fifth time I’ve participated in this favored topic so please have a look back to the previous villains spotlighted from years past as well.

Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven

Ernest Borgnine in Emperor of the North

Gregory Peck in The Boys From Brazil.

Al Lettieri vs, The Icons Part One and Part Two

Don’t forget to follow those links and check out what all the other contributors have to say about their selection for this years Villain Blogathon.

20 Comments »

  1. What a great choice, Mike — this is one of my favorite noirs, and it’s almost never talked about! It packs a punch for just 82 minutes, doesn’t it? Loved your write-up — and that trigger finger quote! Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

  2. Super choice! Bleak, grubby, greedy, pistol-whippin’ action and of course O’Brien is the best at this type of messy character. Loved reading and thanks as always for being part of these events!

  3. Brutal stuff and that “Detective Story” vibe make it moreso as the dirty cop turns on everyone and they turn on him. I’ll raise a toast to Eddie some time this weekend.

  4. It occurred to me, while reading your review, that I’ve never seen Edmond O’Brien in a bad guy role. But I could just picture him, thanks to your description. It looks like I’ve been missing out by not seeing this little-known noir.

  5. O’Brien transforms himself from decent fellow to criminal to murderer, in the superb crime film: ‘711 Ocean Drive’ (1950). This is the story of a telephone repairman, who – short of money – goes to work for a bookmaker, and is then drawn into a life of crime. The writing, direction, and editing are perfect. Included in the cast are Otto Kruger and the beautiful Joanne Dru. The exciting climax was filmed at Boulder Dam, and the cinematography here is extraordinary.

    • Have a copy but have yet to see it. Sounds like it’ll be added to my watch list. Not really sure how I’ve missed it but I have so many in the piles and so little time….. thanks for the recommendation.

  6. Shield for Murder is one of my favourite film noirs, largely because of Edmond O’Brien. He gives a great performance as Eddie, who has to be one of the best bad guys in film noir. For its time, Shield for Murder is rather brutal in its portrayal of violence.

  7. I saw this one years ago, I think on TCM as well, and I thought I remembered it having an outrageous poster tag line…and sure enough, there you are holding the poster in question: “Dame-Hungry Killer-Cop Runs Berserk!” Good lord, I love that line! Hmm, maybe I’ll give this one a watch tonight…you make it sound too good to pass up!

    • Yeah that line is a catchy Noir classic. You just knew that poster was hiding around here didn’t yah? Anyway enjoy the flick while I’m watching game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Pulling for the Blues.

      • Ah, I didn’t know Game 1 was tonight…since I don’t have cable, and NBC only airs weekend games, I’m SOL. Oh well…I have about 500 full games I’ve saved dating back to the 1970s, so I guess I’ll watch one of those. And yes…go Blues!

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