Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Movie: Shield for Murder (1954)

The best film criticism compels the reader, through idiosyncratic perspective and felicitous turns of phrase, to seek out a movie destined to disappoint. To wit, from Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by my friend Eddie Muller:

While THE PROWLER is subtle and complex, unwinding with a seductive rhythm, SHIELD FOR MURDER is a drum solo by a club-footed spastic.

Brother, I am in.

And I’m not even that big a fan of The Prowler, a movie more interesting to think about than to watch. But the comparison made Shield for Murder a must-see.

Edmond O’Brien (who co-directed) is Detective Barney Nolan. Not bent but broken, cracking under the strain of too many hard hours for too little pay, Barney’s decided to make his move. He’s going to off a bookie, pinch his roll, and light out for suburbia with his girl. All he’s got to do is hoodwink his protégé. And handle a deaf-mute witness. And deal with his own lousy luck.

Not exactly new ground, that story (from a novel by William P. McGivern). Still, it’s fertile B-movie terrain. Yet Shield limps out of the gate, inert from the first frame and devoid of suspense. It was clearly shot on the cheap; the opening sequence features the most egregious traveling boom shadow I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty.

Marla English as Nolan’s girl is easy on the eyes but hard on everything else. John Agar is, well, John Agar-like playing Nolan’s partner. The usually reliable O’Brien must have read all those press clippings singling out his ability to convey sweaty desperation. Nothing else would explain the directorial choice to include multiple close ups of O’Brien looking sweaty and desperate. The grace notes come courtesy of a well-filmed shootout at a crowded high school pool and a few familiar faces in the supporting roles, most notably a blonde Carolyn Jones in the movie’s best scenes as a brave-face barfly.

Verdict: I’m with Eddie. At least now I can cross "experience drum solo by club-footed spastic" off my bucket list.