“Kluger’s out!”

Tonight at the American Cinematheque @ the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the Film Noir Foundation will screen RKO’s THE THREAT (1949) as part of Noir City Hollywood: 13th Annual Festival of Film Noir. If you live in or near the greater Los Angeles area and love old movies — and love ‘em big — you owe it to yourself to hoof it to Hollywood Boulevard between now and April 20th and catch these screenings which showcase, in addition to the classics and the standards of the subgenre, rare and forgotten films that do not exist on DVD. THE THREAT (1949) was a routine B-picture cranked out on the soundstages of RKO (with exteriors grabbed on the grounds of the Iverson Movie Ranch outside of Chatsworth) and intended as nothing more than a co-feature for a bigger budgeted film.  The production began life under the title TERROR and was assigned to Felix Feist, a former newsreel cameraman turned director of short subjects who had just helmed the effective THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE (1947), starring that bastard Lawrence Tierney. The plot, courtesy of scenarist Hugh King (DIAL 1119) and screenwriter Dick Irving Hyland (THE PRICE OF FEAR), is no great shakes and plays out in its introductory scenes like an old Batman comic or the first chapter of an Edgar Wallace Mystery, with condemned killer Arnold “Red” Kluger (Charles McGraw) busting out of Folsom Prison and declaring his intention to seek revenge on both the district attorney (Frank Conroy) who sent him up and the detective (Michael O’Shea) who brought him to justice.  Yet even if the plot is somewhat tried-and-true, film noir fans know that the devil is in the details and that Charles McGraw is the God of Hellfire.

The Threat

THE THREAT divides its brisk 66-minute running time between tense scenes of Kluger (whose face is obscured by shadows for a good deal of the first act) capturing and, true to his word, threatening his prisoners… whose nervous number includes dancer Carol (Virginia Grey, later in Andrew Stone’s HIGHWAY 301 and Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS), a former flame who may have dropped dime on the recidivist, and a moving van driver (Don McGuire, who would reteam with McGraw for Richard Fleischer’s punchy ARMORED CAR ROBBERY the following year) whose vehicle provides the criminals with a means of slipping the police dragnet. The scenes set within an old prospector’s shack-cum-hideout, as criminals and captives alike sweat bullets and get on one another’s nerves, are vividly played and deftly suspenseful. Standout moments include Kluger’s surprise gut-shooting of one captive and Carol’s repeated attempts to curry favor with her understandably resentful ex-boyfriend… pathetic attempts at seduction which invariably end with her face kissed in the calloused cup of Kluger’s gun hand.

Charles McGraw

Red Kluger is one of those titanic movie villains about whom everybody seems to have heard in infamous and gory detail, from the suits in the office of the District Attorney to the lowliest grease monkeys and gas pump jockeys along Route 66 to the newsies on every dark corner of the City of Angels.  His harshly Germanic surname elicits instant recognition (“Kluger!”) and inspires cautious folk wisdom (“With Kluger, you can’t be too careful!”)  McGraw was making a return to RKO after playing supporting roles in Anthony Mann’s BORDER INCIDENT (1949) and REIGN OF TERROR (1949). Adept at fleshing out mugs of every stripe, McGraw enjoyed occasional good guy roles, popping up late in both THE MAD GHOUL (1943) at Universal and THE HUNTED (1948) for Allied Artists as squad room detectives who do more good than harm.  For this then-rare lead role, McGrew drew $2,000 the two-week investment of his time, which paid the dividend of a long-term RKO contract and some of the best notices of his career. Variety heralded “a humdinger (of a performance) etched in uncompromising cruelty.”  In his essential biography Charles McGraw: Portrait of a Film Noir Tough Guy, Alan K. Rode likened McGraw’s work to “a virtuoso performance by a spitting cobra… a hail of venomous insults, coercion and actual bullets in a portrayal of unabashed ruthlessness.” 

Charles McGraw

If I had to identify a problem with THE THREAT it’s that McGraw isn’t in enough of it. Rest assured, Red Kluger is no cameo — he’s the driving force of the flick — he’s just not in every scene. In the film that allowed him to cut loose after years of champing at the bit at the back of the frame, McGraw deserves to dominate and a craftier director would have given him his head. Although the rest of the cast is an agreeable lot, Michael O’Shea is a bland hero, a poor man’s Spencer Tracy, whose treacly backstory (he is taken captive while awaiting the imminent birth of his first child) is too obvious a counterpoint to Kluger’s heartless mania. Anthony Caruso (THE ASPHALT JUNGLE) and Frank Richards (I, THE JURY) bring the right mixture of lunkheaded heft as Kluger’s henchmen but neither gets a chance to shine; led by Robert Shayne, the cops on the case are nonentities — my kingdom for Fred Clark!  Scenes of the police hunt for Kluger seem to have been included in deference to the vogue at the time for procedural vérité, which can be appreciated in such films as Anthony Mann’s T-MEN (1947), Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948), and Mann and Alfred Werker’s HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), but the device here feels tentative. On the plus side, Virginia Grey is an inspired choice to play Red Kluger’s one-time paramour.  Looking considerably older than her 32 years, Grey has an unusual, cruel mouth (accentuated by her habit of talking out of the corner of it) and really sells Carol’s desperation and her climactic triumph in being able, in the final frames, to turn the tables on her brooding tormentor. I’ve long wondered if the Italian-German coproduction BLUTIGER FREITAG (US: BLOODY FRIDAY, 1972) was inspired in any way by THE THREAT.  German actor Raimund Harmstorf is a suitable heir to the throne of Charles McGraw, as the redbearded Heinz Klett, a habitual criminal who slips police custody to rob a bank and take several hostages on the ride of their lives. The odds favor coincidence in this case, as thugs taking hostages is a time-honored crime film trope, but a double feature of these two films would put my butt in the bijou seat.

A minor noir with a major performance by rising star Charles McGraw, THE THREAT is worth seeking out for both fans of film noir and for those who simply enjoy seeing a man who loves his work.   Come and support Noir City before the clock runs out on April 20th.  Tonight’s bill is rounded out with Felix Feist’s THIS WOMAN IS DANGEROUS (1952), starring Joan Crawford.  It’s a fistful of Feist!  Future screenings this year include the “They’re Driving Me Crazy” two-fer of George Cuckor’s GASLIGHT (1944) and Joseph H. Lewis’ THEY CALL ME JULIA ROSS (1945) as well as the ultra-rare LOOPHOLE (1954) with Charles McGraw (the Film Noir Foundation funded a striking of a restored print — that’s what they do!) and KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE (1951), starring Jimmy Cagney.  Check the American Cinemateque website for show times (generally the fun begins at 7:30) and for news about special guests!

Support the Film Noir Foundation.

Keep abreast of the Film Noir Foundation on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

Read Susan King’s advance appreciation of Noir City Hollywood 13 in the Los Angeles Times.

Buy Alan Rode’s Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy at Amazon.com.


16 Responses “Kluger’s out!”
Posted By Grand Old Movies : April 7, 2011 12:30 pm

“God of Hellfire” – love that phrase! McGraw always stood out in his roles – he even once did a small, but very funny bit in a Ma & Pa Kettle movie, of all things (M&PK Go To Town), as a fleeing robber who hides in disguise out at the Kettle household (he pretends he’s a poet…) – a versatile & underrated actor.

Posted By Grand Old Movies : April 7, 2011 12:30 pm

“God of Hellfire” – love that phrase! McGraw always stood out in his roles – he even once did a small, but very funny bit in a Ma & Pa Kettle movie, of all things (M&PK Go To Town), as a fleeing robber who hides in disguise out at the Kettle household (he pretends he’s a poet…) – a versatile & underrated actor.

Posted By AL PEREZ : April 7, 2011 6:18 pm

Hi. This is a wonderful article, but I am really surprised that, in your mention of Charles McGraw you fail to include NARROW MARGIN. This film is one of the great Noir’s and was probably his best role (and film). His teaming with the amazing Marie Windsor was unforgetable.

Posted By AL PEREZ : April 7, 2011 6:18 pm

Hi. This is a wonderful article, but I am really surprised that, in your mention of Charles McGraw you fail to include NARROW MARGIN. This film is one of the great Noir’s and was probably his best role (and film). His teaming with the amazing Marie Windsor was unforgetable.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : April 7, 2011 6:21 pm

The focus of the article was on McGraw’s career leading up to The Threat, with a passing reference to Armored Car Robbery only because the two films share McGraw and Don McGuire. He made a lot of great movies afterwards, The Narrow Margin being one of them… but that’s another story!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : April 7, 2011 6:21 pm

The focus of the article was on McGraw’s career leading up to The Threat, with a passing reference to Armored Car Robbery only because the two films share McGraw and Don McGuire. He made a lot of great movies afterwards, The Narrow Margin being one of them… but that’s another story!

Posted By Jenni : April 7, 2011 6:26 pm

Thanks for writing about this film. Hadn’t heard about it before, sounds like a must-see for me, and wow, 66 minutes? Incredible!

Posted By Jenni : April 7, 2011 6:26 pm

Thanks for writing about this film. Hadn’t heard about it before, sounds like a must-see for me, and wow, 66 minutes? Incredible!

Posted By Andrew Monroe : April 8, 2011 12:14 pm

I’m envious of those who will get to see this little gem on the big screen! McGraw is everything you wrote and more as Red, RHS. No one else spits out that hard-boiled dialogue like him. Terrific piece, and your mention of BLOODY FRIDAY has me planning a double bill of these two in the near future.

Posted By Andrew Monroe : April 8, 2011 12:14 pm

I’m envious of those who will get to see this little gem on the big screen! McGraw is everything you wrote and more as Red, RHS. No one else spits out that hard-boiled dialogue like him. Terrific piece, and your mention of BLOODY FRIDAY has me planning a double bill of these two in the near future.

Posted By AL PEREZ : April 8, 2011 6:26 pm

rh: duh! mine face is red. This really is terrific piece. MORE!

Posted By AL PEREZ : April 8, 2011 6:26 pm

rh: duh! mine face is red. This really is terrific piece. MORE!

Posted By Al Lowe : April 11, 2011 8:57 am

I think it is worth mentioning that Michael O’Shea was the husband of Virginia Mayo of WHITE HEAT fame and their marriage endured until his death in 1973. He was 41 and she was 26 when they wed in 1947. One of his best friends was Marilyn Monroe’s first husband. (I am getting this from a reference book, “The Forties Gals” by James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke.

Perhaps O’Shea’s best part was as Judy Holliday’s promoter in Cukor’s IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU.

Posted By Al Lowe : April 11, 2011 8:57 am

I think it is worth mentioning that Michael O’Shea was the husband of Virginia Mayo of WHITE HEAT fame and their marriage endured until his death in 1973. He was 41 and she was 26 when they wed in 1947. One of his best friends was Marilyn Monroe’s first husband. (I am getting this from a reference book, “The Forties Gals” by James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke.

Perhaps O’Shea’s best part was as Judy Holliday’s promoter in Cukor’s IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 12, 2011 9:11 pm

Thanks for the great article. As a lover of noir and with a newfound appreciation of Charles McGraw and that toughest of tough guy voices, this would be a thrill to see.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 12, 2011 9:11 pm

Thanks for the great article. As a lover of noir and with a newfound appreciation of Charles McGraw and that toughest of tough guy voices, this would be a thrill to see.

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