Little Tin God: SHIELD FOR MURDER (United Artists 1954)

Edmond O’Brien  is big, burly, and brutal in 1954’s SHIELD FOR MURDER, a grim film noir about a killer cop trapped in that ol’ inevitable downward spiral. It’s a good (though not great) crime drama that gave the actor a seat in the director’s chair, sharing credit with another first timer, Howard W. Koch. The film, coming at the end of the first noir cycle, strives for realism, but almost blows it in the very first scene when the shadow of a boom mike appears on an alley fence! Chalk it up to first-timer’s jitters, and a budget that probably couldn’t afford retakes.

O’Brien, noted for such noir thrillers as THE KILLERS , WHITE HEAT, and DOA, stars as crooked cop Barney Nolan, who murders a bookie in that alley I just mentioned and rips him off for 25 grand. Apartently, this isn’t the first time Nolan’s killed, with the charges being swept under the rug as “in the line of duty”. Nolan hides his ill-gotten gains under the porch of a model suburban dream home he’s thinking of buying for himself and fiancé Patty Winters.

The 25 G’s belong to gangster Packy Reed, who of course wants his dough back. Reed’s two menacing goons threaten Patty, but are stopped by Nolan’s partner Mark Brewster. Then Nolan learns there was a witness, a deaf mute old man, and goes to try and bribe the old geezer, but accidentally kills him instead. Mark is called to investigate and finds a note the geezer wrote implicating Nolan in the bookie’s death. Nolan now becomes a hunted man, with the squad leader putting all cops on the lookout, leading to Barney Nolan’s unavoidable date with destiny.

There’s some shocking violence in the scene where Nolan, getting drunk at an Italian restaurant with a local floozie, spots the goons who threatened Patty, and savagely pistol whips them both. The final scenes, where the hunted Nolan engages in a gun duel with a goon at a high school swim meet, then is ferociously gunned down himself by his police brethren, are also well staged. O’Brien directed one other feature, 1961’s MAN TRAP, while Koch went on to a long career as a director (BIG HOUSE USA, UNTAMED YOUTH , FRANKENSTEIN 1970 , BADGE 373), producer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, FOUR FOR TEXAS , THE ODD COUPLE, AIRPLANE!), and a stint as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The cast is terse and tough, and includes John Agar as Nolan’s partner Mark, Emile Meyer as the no nonsense precinct captain, Claude Akins as one of the goons, and a blonde Carolyn Jones as the floozie. Sexy Marla English plays Patty; she’s best known for a pair of chillers, THE SHE CREATURE and VOODOO WOMAN. The rest of the cast list features Familiar Faces from the world of episodic TV: John Beradino (GENERAL HOSPITAL), William Boyett (ADAM-12), Robert Bray (LASSIE), Richard Deacon (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Stafford Repp (BATMAN), William Schallert (THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, STAR TREK’s “The Trouble With Tribbles”) and Vito Scotti, who was on just about every TV show made from the 50’s to the 70’s!

SHIELD FOR MURDER offers noir buffs a darkly good time, although I feel it’s definitely second-tier stuff. O’Brien and the cast make it worth watching, as does the intermittent outbursts of violence. Would I watch it again? Sure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so. You Dear Readers will have to decide for yourselves.

 

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.