The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
There’s been a crashout at Folsom Prison! The convict who’s beat a hasty retreat is Arnold “Red” Kluger (Charles McGraw), a mad-dog killer whose bid for freedom is sidelined by a bit of revenge: he’s got a score to settle with Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea)—the cop who put the pinch on him—and Barker “Mac” MacDonald (Frank Conroy), the District Attorney who sent him away. With the help of goons Nick (Anthony Caruso) and Lefty (Frank Richards), Williams and MacDonald are kidnapped so Kluger can carry out his plan for payback, and Carol (Virginia Grey), a showgirl who Red suspects squealed to the cops, is collected along the way.
Once he’s finished with his retribution, Kluger has a pre-planned rendezvous with partner Tony Anzio, but getting to his destination requires the help of Joe Turner (Don McGuire), a moving man reluctantly dragooned into participating in Red’s scheme. Red and his gang use Joe’s van to transport Ray, Mac, and Carol (all held prisoner in Ray’s car) to a spot in the desert to meet Tony’s plane, so the three hostages have to band together to survive Kluger’s extreme brutality. Fortunately for them, Ray’s superior, Inspector Murphy (Robert Shayne) is hot on Kluger’s trail; it’s now a race against time.
Character actor Charles McGraw, who plays the menacing Kluger in The Threat (1949), is an icon to fans of film noir. His early film career included uncredited bits in films like The Undying Monster (1942) and The Seventh Cross (1944), but with a role as one of two hitmen (the other played by William Conrad) who croaks Burt Lancaster’s ex-boxer in The Killers (1946), Charlie’s ticket was punched for frequent trips to Noir City. Among the noirs McGraw made appearances in are The Big Fix (1947), The Long Night (1947), Brute Force (1947), The Gangster (1947), The Hunted (1948), Roadblock (1951), and His Kind of Woman (1951); he was also a favorite of director Anthony Mann, appearing in T-Men (1947), Reign of Terror (1949—Mann’s offbeat noir set against the background of the French Revolution), Border Incident (1949), and Side Street (1950).
Author Eddie Muller memorably described McGraw in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Noir as resembling “an armored car, draped in a pin-striped suit.” Charlie’s most memorable characteristic was his unmistakable voice, which “sounded like a fist was gripping his larynx whenever he deigned to utter dialogue.” Another noir disciple, Alan K. Rode, related in Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy a comment McGraw made to his daughter Jill when she complained his raspy tones had a tendency to unsettle her friends: “Without the voice, we’d be living in a two-room flat somewhere.” Charlie played a lot of bad guys but was versatile enough to expand on his resume of villainy by occasionally crossing over to the right side of the law with heroic turns in two classic B-noirs, Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952).
McGraw is third-billed in The Threat but there’s little doubt that he’s the star in this fast-paced B; Michael O’Shea (Smart Woman, The Underworld Story) is a bit colorless as the hero, and second-billed Virginia Grey (Another Thin Man, Crime of Passion) is so emaciated she should have asked someone in craft services to rustle her up a home-cooked meal. (Grey was a consolation prize; Gloria Grahame was RKO’s first choice for the role—when the film was originally called Terror—but she turned down the part and was suspended by the studio). Arnold “Red” Kluger is a man who embraces violence as easily as drawing breath; though many of the vicious acts perpetrated in the film (D.A. Conroy is tortured with a pair of pliers, McGraw brings a chair down on O’Shea’s cranium) thankfully occur offscreen, Kluger’s propensity to lash out physically (he slaps several people around to keep them in line) demonstrates that he’s an individual comfortable with his sadism.
The Threat is directed in semi-documentary style by Felix E. Feist, whose other contributions to film noir include The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947—a B-picture classic that sadly is not available on DVD as of this writing), Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), and This Woman is Dangerous (1952). Feist cut his cinematic teeth in the MGM shorts department helming many of the entries in that studio’s Crime Does Not Pay series. Feist handles the material by Dick Irving Hyland and Hugh King (who also produced and contributed the story) with speed and economy, squeezing every bit of suspense out of their efforts including a memorable sequence at a gas station where Red and his gang risk being exposed by a nosey motorcycle cop.
Filmed on RKO soundstages with exterior shooting around the San Fernando Valley and in the Santa Susana desert at the legendary Iverson ranch, The Threat was a product of the studio’s B-picture unit, headed up by Sid Rogell. (Director Feist brought it in slightly under its budget, at $221,235.) Every motion picture factory cranked out crime programmer fare at the time, but Threat stands out due to the unforgettable performance by McGraw (a ticking time bomb that could go off at any time), who once observed about his frequent bad guy casting: “I don’t mind playing the bum and tough guy in pictures if it’s real.” The actor playing the intrepid Inspector Murph is familiar to folks as Robert Shayne, who was Inspector Henderson on The Adventures of Superman, and look sharp for the man piloting the plane as Tony Anzio—that’s Ben Welden, who played more hoods and gangsters in these movies than Carter has little liver pills.