Sweaty, nervous Edmond O’Brien barrels intensely down the sidewalk, pausing in a doorway to light a cigarette, watch a man get out of a car and put a silencer on his revolver. On an otherwise barren, wet sidewalk, he grabs the man, forces him into an alley and shoots him in the back. He removes the silencer, quickly searches the murdered man, finds a thick envelope (which he pockets) and then fires twice into the air, shouting, “stop or I’ll shoot!” Unknown to him, another man, from an apartment nearby, has seen everything. The police arrive. One walks up to O’Brien’s character and asks why he’s there. “I shot him,” O’Brien replies. “Take it easy, Barney,” says the other cop, “I’ll write up the report.” The murderer is a police detective, the victim an underworld bookmaker. The envelope contained $25,000 and Barney’s just stolen it. Justice in this midnight city is lost.
This is one way to describe the shocking first four minutes of 1954’s Shield for Murder, one of only two films O’Brien ever directed (here sharing duties with Howard W. Koch). Stark, savage and cruel, it belongs to that late period of the first wave of noir films when the righteousness and nobility had drained away and the miasmata of venality, sleaze and self-loathing that had been just held off by the chivalrous Marlowes, Spades and Swedes had taken its place in the hearts of every character, in the design of every set. Shield for Murder is one of the nastiest and most pernicious of these films — nasty and pernicious because of how satisfyingly it fits together as a minor exemplar of formal rigor and because of how its exceptional cinematic intelligence and precision work to normalize an awful way of looking at the world.
Let’s think for a bit about the remarkable scene halfway through the short 81-minute runtime, when O’Brien’s killer cop, Barney, goes to a nearby restaurant for a drink and gets picked up by Carolyn Jones, a decade away from her iconic role as Morticia Addams, playing to perfection a picture of drunk loneliness and need. It is a space of glare, reflection and doubling, a virtuosic display of set design that manages to be both a fantasy of an eatery and a nightmarish space of violence and betrayal. Busy, overstuffed frames compete to draw the viewer’s attention in crazy, incongruous directions, oddly cut-off faces and bodies disconcert, and Barney, at the center of it all, sits, preternaturally still and malevolent, his moral rot softly festering inside him, poisoning every gesture, every word he says. They sit together struggling to share a meal, surrounded by kitschy patterns of stripes and checks that dazzle and confuse the eye. It is as if Barney’s presence is being actively resisted by everything around him, as if the familial, ordinary space of the restaurant cannot abide a man like him and everything around him is conspiring to eject him before he brings his evil in as well.
And then two goons come in. Barney called them after he found out they tried to strongarm his fiancee into giving up the location of the money he stole from the bookmaker. In the course of just over a dozen shots — shots in which no explicit physical violence is shown, only close-ups of the horrified and panicked faces of the other diners and Barney’s determined grimace — he delivers an appallingly violent pistol-whipping on the heads of the gangsters. The soundtrack swells with screams of the onlookers and the sickening thumping of Barney’s weapon as it bashes their heads in. A man who guns down another man for money can be understood; a man who ruthlessly brains two others and terrorizes an entire eatery can only be expelled from society. As he walks out of the room, his violent mission complete, a woman’s voice cries out, “call the police!” He turns to her, infinite scorn and weariness in his voice, and sneers, “you had the police.” It is the first time the film has shown the restaurant in its entirety, now corrupted and ruined by Barney’s viciousness. In a wide shot, as Barney strides away from the camera and out the door, the room is made to resemble not merely a crime scene, but the site of a catastrophe.
The violence of the scene is nauseating, and ought to be. O’Brien isn’t playing the upstanding knight in a fallen world like Bogart or Powell or Lancaster did. He grins and grunts with pleasure as each blow falls and walks away unpunished, unmolested by the authorities, his actions unchecked. In scenes like this, Shield for Murder develops a visual rhetoric of the space of Barney’s violence. It is a space of intense physicality, of fractured images that tease and withhold crucial actions in order to focus on effects and aftermaths. Where Barney goes, he brings with him the danger that, at any instant, his barely-contained brutality might boil over, and so the film’s style might boil over at any instant as well.
His scene of robbery established him as a villain; his scene of skull-fracturing establishes him as a villain who cannot be redeemed, even within the codes of Hollywood’s ideology machine. Just as the onlookers are horrified by what he’s done, the film’s rhetoric insists that his actions are visually out of bounds as well, that they cannot be shown the same way the rest of the film is made. Because he is a police officer, this moment is a crucial one in reconciling the film’s moral code. Without its clear indication that Barney is not just corrupt but that he also cannot fit within the world the movie’s presenting, the question would necessarily remain open whether the film was showing a character outside the limits of what was acceptable or showing a character whose excesses and crimes were, troublingly, fully in line with an excessive and criminal world. Shield for Murder is bleak, but its bleakness isn’t the nihilism of Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich provided a world in which his antihero was ahead of the curve in his malignancy. O’Brien and Koch made a film that insists its antihero has gone too far, that the world may be bad, but that however bad it is, he’s worse.
That’s a lesson we tend to want to hear, I think, but it’s a lesson we should be very careful about. There is a difference between a just cinematic world that’s endangered by a rogue malevolence and a cinematic world that has already toppled over, enabling an even worse malevolence to emerge within it. So if Shield for Murder is signalling to us that Barney’s overstepped the boundaries of what’s acceptable, we should be asking what, in the world of the film, counts as acceptable in the first place. And as this is a narrative of gangsters and lawbreakers, as this is a narrative about a cop who doesn’t deserve to be a cop, we need to look to the police to see what standard the film is asking us to hold the other characters to.
While we get hints, bit and pieces, as to what the film’s conception of justice and the police might be — the reflexive acceptance of Barney’s implausible story of his gun “going wild” and accidentally killing the bookmaker, the casual bigotry and misogyny in their banter in the station, the threats of violence Barney’s partner is happy to dole out to whatever underworld figure comes his way — it isn’t until the film’s conclusion that it becomes clear what Barney is being contrasted with. (And here I must warn of impending spoilers.)
The uncomfortably deliberate pace the movie has enjoyed so far, allowing Barney’s evil to grow inside it, transforms in its last five minutes into frightening activity as the city seems to come to life in its urgent need to neutralize the the wayward policeman within it. As leukocytes surround and engulf an invading microbe, the city’s officers pour forth from every street, relentlessly pursuing Barney as he attempts to make his sad, mad dash for freedom.
The way the cops are shot, any semblance of humanity they may have had in earlier scenes is erased. Barney is the only individual left, the sole police officer granted a face is the one that must be destroyed for the city to continue. Anonymous figures blast through the streets and alleys, firing their weapons wildly and recklessly in a fever of bloodlust. And, when finally cornering the defeated Barney, they encircle him in their blinding headlights and blow him away him in a barrage of gunfire that predicts the stunning overkill assassinations of the title characters in Bonnie & Clyde and Sonny in The Godfather. Faced with a presence that cannot be endured, the police transform from hard-working, genial-but-dedicated public servants into a gang of marauding killers, ready to do whatever’s necessary to eliminate the threat Barney poses. This is the “normal” that the film supports, the standard that Barney hasn’t lived up to.
There are lessons in Shield of Murder, lessons that deserve our serious attention and concern — not despite the film’s excellence but because of it, for a lesser movie would not be able to make the way of life and thought suggested by its structures so powerful and compelling. In part because it is so expertly made, the film is a visual training ground for teaching us to think vengefully, for us to view social order as needing to be defended by all means available, for us to value it so highly that no price is too high to pay in order to keep it safe. Barney’s outsized villainy allows this lesson to be swallowed with little difficulty, but the faceless mob of uniformed executioners that public servants are revealed to be remain a presence in one’s memory long after the film stops playing. One way of reading Barney’s violence is as a way of making this other violence, the violence not of breaking but of regulating law and order, seem tame and even natural in comparison. Images that ought to evoke fear and disgust instead are turned into comforting lines of defense against even greater evils.
Movies aren’t neutral vessels that we can stuff with our cultural baggage. We give parts of ourselves, our thoughts and our fears and our loves, to the movies we watch in order to make sense of them, but they also make demands — sometimes awful, angry, oppressive demands — on us, on who we are, in return. Watching films changes not just what we think about the world but indeed how we do so. And a great film like Shield for Murder can determine those things to a very high degree indeed. The normalizing of state violence takes work. It’s not easy to make it seem unremarkable that government agents can openly slay civilians in the streets. In order to do that work, it takes, among many other things, outstanding works of visual fiction like this one.
Kian Bergstrom (@FalseFlorimell) is a Chicago-based poet and critic whose writings on film appear regularly at Cine-File.info. He teaches in the History & Philosophy Department at Roosevelt University.