Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Threat (1949)

Charles McGraw and The Threat

As summarized from Charles Mcgraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy by Alan K. Rode, all rights reserved.

Charles McGraw’s return to RKO in 1949 nearly a year and half after appearing in Blood on the Moon (1948) placed him a completely different situation as an actor. Even though The Threat would entail less than a fifth of the budget than the all-star western helmed by Robert Wise, this time out McGraw would be the unquestioned star rather than just a supporting player.

The Threat (1949), with a working title of Terror, was envisioned as a typical second feature ground out by the RKO “B” unit headed by Sid Rogell. Felix E. Feist, son of a M.G.M. executive, was an independent writer and director who cut his teeth working in the shorts department at Metro during the 1930’s. Feist knew how to imbue quality into a shoestring Rogell assignment having previously directed the perversely entertaining The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947) starring Lawrence Tierney. Feist shot The Threat on RKO soundstages with exteriors around the San Fernando Valley and out in the Santa Susana desert at the Iverson Ranch. He would bring the film in slightly under budget at $221,235.

Charlie was hired at $1000 per week for a two and a half week shoot that began production on June 7, 1949. He played a vengeful killer, “Red Kluger” who breaks out of Folsom Prison, pausing in L.A. long enough to wreck vengeance on the police detective (Michael O’Shea) and district attorney (Frank Conroy) who sent him up. Aided by a duo of cinematic blunt instruments (Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards), McGraw kidnaps the two lawmen along with his erstwhile main squeeze (the anorexic-appearing Virginia Grey) for 66 minutes of non-stop action. The film quickly becomes a highlight reel of McGraw-inspired mayhem including torture of an unfortunate Conroy with a pair of pliers and the cold-blooded murder of a policeman while smuggling the hostages in a moving van on Inland Empire back roads to a California high desert hideout. An exciting escape denouement is accentuated by Charlie terrorizing everyone in a desert shack that comes to resemble a sauna bath cum insane asylum until the tables are inevitably turned.

Although third-billed under O’Shea and Grey, there was no doubt who the star of The Threat was. McGraw’s acting was akin to observing a virtuoso performance by a spitting cobra. Charlie spewed forth a guttural hail of venom, coercion and bullets in a portrayal of unabashed ruthlessness that startled audiences with its intense ferocity. McGraw’s indelible performance also reinforced his type-casting as a vicious heavy, but at this point, he didn’t worry about it if the picture was authentic and he was getting paid. “Oh, I don’t mind playing the bum and tough guy in pictures if it’s real”, Charlie explained. “But some of those long-haired writers kick it in the head because they seldom go outside a studio or college library. I really blow my top when they try to foist on me some foreign-born writer’s idea of the New York or Chicago gangster world.”

The Threat garnered wildly enthusiastic reviews in the trade papers and was received as a minor league White Heat (1949) that had been premiered by Warner Brothers with great fanfare several months earlier. More specifically, Charlie’s performance became a minor sensation that invited comparisons to both Cagney and Richard Widmark’s ruthless turn in Kiss of Death (1947). Virginia Grey went out her way in the Los Angeles Times to compare her rugged co-star to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. The Threat earned McGraw the greatest public acclaim of his entire career and the actor was suddenly a hot item In Hollywood.

Charlie’s agent, Paul Wilkins, moving quickly to capitalize on the bow wave of rave reviews, arranged for a full page image of McGraw as “Red Kluger” on the rear of Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter on November 4, 1949, lauding the star for his performance in The Threat. McGraw’s positive notices and the plethora of fan mail received by RKO following release of the picture convinced Howard Hughes that he needed to move quickly to lock up the suddenly marketable actor to a long term deal.

In an interesting back story to McGraw’s emergent acclaim, Jill McGraw distinctly recalls her father writing some of his own fan mail to RKO during this period in what was obviously a clandestine effort to help convince the studio to offer him a long term contract, better roles or both. How many of these “fan letters” which were actually penned by McGraw remains a mystery.

What was undeniable was the positive publicity associated with McGraw’s performance in The Threat made him a hot prospect. RKO offered Charlie a seven-year contract starting at $750 per week. McGraw inked the deal on January 14, 1950, a week after beginning work on his initial contracted feature at RKO, Code 30, a picture that would eventually be released as Armored Car Robbery (1950).


  1. Thanks Alan! I have to check this one out again. Good luck with the book.

  2. I really love this blog. well written and nicely put together, thanks.

  3. I watched this one last night... I really liked it. It's fun to watch McGraw bully people around - what a rotter! Sweats a lot, too. Did you notice that in that shack he seemed to have about four times as much sweat on his tee-shirt than everyone else? (And that woman stayed pretty dry.)

    A crackerjack little 66 minute noir in the RKO house style.

    Spoilers (sort of):

    Did everyone else give an exasperated gasp when that foolish truck driver lost his gun? And when the wife apparently let the "Dexter" clue slip by? Nice little touches to toy with the audience... - Wes Clark