Monday, December 3, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature,
history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            It’s a slow evening and I have about 80 minutes to kill, so I turn to one of my newer toys – the Youtube function on my computer – and I watch a complete old cheapie movie.

            Shield for Murder, a B-feature made in 1954. Black-and-white, of course, as all good noirs were and as all cheapie movies had to be in the early 1950s. Jointly directed by its star Edmond O’Brien and by Howard Koch. Its lead actors are people who would appear only in supporting roles in A-productions. Edmond O’Brien, Carolyn Jones, John Agar, Marla English.

            Plot – in a dark night-time alley, crooked police detective Edmond O’Brien shoots a bookie in the back and steals $25,000 from the corpse. He then loudly shouts “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” and fires two shots in the air to give himself an alibi should anyone be listening. When uniformed cops turn up, he claims the bookie was killed by a warning shot that went wild. They seem to believe him, especially the idealistic younger detective (John Agar) whom O’Brien once trained.

            But the bookie’s gangster employers want their lost money back and they don’t believe O’Brien’s story when it is reported in the press. They send their stand-over men after him. Worse, there was a harmless old deaf-mute witness who saw O’Brien commit the murder. O’Brien traces this nice old witness and rubs him out. We were at least a tiny bit on his side in the earlier parts of the movie, because his motive in stealing the money was to buy a home in a nice new suburban sub-division and settle down with the innocent young thing (Marla English) he was courting.

            But now we can see he is an irredeemable thug.

            So can the unbent cops, including a disillusioned John Agar. In the upshot, and after a frantic chase, they track their rogue colleague to the spot where he has hidden his stolen loot. They line up accusingly. The bent cop fires first, so the unbent cops are justified in firing back. They become an execution squad. Bent cop goes down in a hail of bullets and dies ironically in front of the suburban home he dreamt of buying.

            End of movie.

            Nope, not High Art by any manner of means, and I am not the sort of chap to fetishize crap old films because of their very crumminess (like those pretentious nouvelle vague French directors who would make hommages to Monogram Pictures and the like). My basic aesthetic code says that crap is crap. But then there is such a thing as entertaining crap, and this is it.

            Watching Shield for Murder, I was aware of its glaring faults as drama. In every sequence set in the police station, there’s a wise old pipe-smoking crime reporter who seems to have nothing to do but stand around offering homilies on what an evil thing it is that there are bent cops – just in case we don’t understand this ourselves. O’Brien sweats, rants and puffs as he usually did (there were some honourable exceptions in his long acting career). The acting of Agar, English and the police captain would make wood look like a fluid substance. The structure is strictly formula: crime, chase, retribution.

            And yet – dammit – I can see some merit in the argument that says B-features in Old Hollywood were often more sprightly and less encumbered with style than A-features. And they could get away with stuff A-features wouldn’t touch. If Shield for Murder had had a bigger budget and an A-director, its trim 80 minutes would probably have been padded out with redundant things to suggest more complex motivation in its simplistic characters. The bent cop’s one-dimensional nice-girl fiancĂ©e would have been turned into a femme fatale of the sort that haunts most noirs. And there would have been a softened version of the louche sequence where a barfly whore makes up to O’Brien when he’s on the lam. She’s played by Carolyn Jones with fake blonde hair and a big visible bruise on her arm to suggest the rougher encounters in her trade. I can’t imagine that in Technicolor in 1954.

            This is crummy movie-making, but it has a direct sort of honesty to it.

            Then there’s the unnerving rough poetry of the final shoot-out scene, filmed at night of course (this is a noir) and on location in what looks like a real suburban sub-division. I believe if I had seen this movie as a kid, this final sequence would have scared the crap out of me. It’s so like the night-time denouement of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil which really did scare the crap out of me when I saw it, in the local parish hall, at the age of nine or ten.

            What does this tedious review of an old movie prove?

            Nothing really, except that vigorous old B-movie crap can kill the time very handily. And that, of course, is more than most movies can do. 

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