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).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Noir of the Week in July!

Next week we're breaking out the big guns! Summer is here and it's time for our regular contributors to take a summer break. So in July some of our favorite film writers have agreed to let us publish some of their best essays on film noir. Some of you will remember these articles from the most popular film noir books out there.

We'll have contributions from Eddie Muller, Spencer Selby, Alan K. Rode, and Barry Gifford (maybe even a few more). You'll have to wait and see which movies will be discussed.


one is a film featuring three big noir stars
another is a fantastic cop-on-the-edge thriller
and one is a Hollywood-noir starring one of the greats!

The writers:

Spencer Selby published his book Dark City in 1984. The book is one that every noir fan should own.

Eddie Muller is the Czar of Noir. His Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir book is one of my personal favorites filled with gritty inside stories.

Alan K. Rode is a familiar name from the old Blackboard. His book on Charles McGraw is coming out in the fall (guess who stars in his NOTW?)

Barry Gifford's book Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir is simply one of the best written books on film. His writing is better than some of the films he talks about. You may own the book under it's original title, "The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films."

July's gonna be worth getting out of bed for.

(from Blind Spot, by the way. It's not a Noir of the Week but I still love it)

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Web (1947)

The Web released by Universal in the spring of 47 boasts a dynamite cast headed up by Mr. Noir himself Edmond O’Brien. Along for the ride are Ella Raines, Vincent Price and the great William Bendix. Suffice to say, these players tote a rather impressive list of noirs in their bag of collective credits; The Killers, D.O.A., White Heat, The Hitch Hiker, Laura, The Bribe, While the City Sleeps, Brute Force, The Glass Key, The Blue Dahlia and Macao are only a flesh wound on this impressive assemblage of actors.

The supporting players John Abbott, William Haade, Howard Chamberlain, Wilton Graff and everybody’s favorite short and balding Italian Tito Vuolo are no slouches either in the gritty back alleys and wet pavements of the noir landscape. They too have literally dozens of noir and crime films on their resumes that for the sake of brevity we’ll forsake listing here.

The Web
View Photo Slideshow

While Warner’s Brothers is thought of as the home of the gangsters and MGM as that of the big budget musical, Universal is generally considered the home of the monsters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman) and Abbott and Costello. In reality the back lots of Universal during the golden age of noir were abuzz with A list noirs from Criss Cross to Touch of Evil. Of course not everything produced was up the standards of these as marginal noirs like Lady on a Train and Inside Job bear testament to the studios ability to go bargain basement too.

The Web is not top drawer but it ain’t stuck down in the bottom drawer with the underwear either. In addition to a swell cast it’s got creative and technical cast members with a raft full or noir experience. Director Michael Gordon with credits for Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood, Woman in Hiding, One Dangerous Night, and Crime Doctor. It boasts two writers, William Bowers and Harry Kurntz who between them penned Pitfall, Criss Cross, Abandoned, Convicted, The Mob, Split Second, Tight Spot, 5 Against the House, The Thin Man Goes Home, and Shadow of the Thin Man. Cinematography (IMO lacking somewhat) is in the hands of Irving Glassberg with credits for The Price of Fear, Shakedown, Larceny and the Story of Molly X.

The story involves small time attorney Bob Regan (O’Brien) and fate dumping him into the lap of shifty multi-million dollar businessman Andrew Colby (Price) and his live in private secretary Noel Faraday (Raines). Our film opens with Regan muscling his way past Faraday and busting into Colby’s office seeking restitution for the damage to the fruit vending cart for one of his clients to the tune of $68.72. Regan seemingly impresses Colby with his eager beaver spirit. As it turns out Colby’s quite a judge of character and naturally figures if Regan will go to such great lengths for what figures to be a pittance of a fee against a claim for $68.72, what would he be willing to do for $5000?

We soon find out as later that day as Regan accepts an invitation to meet with Colby at his house that evening. During their meeting Colby relates a story of his former business partner who had forged stock certificates to the tune of a million bucks. The partner professed his innocence but was found guilty by the courts and sentenced to 5 years in the joint. The money from the job was never recovered and with the partner just being sprung that very day, Colby convinces Regan, for a fee of five thousand dollars, to serve as his personal body guard. Against his better judgment but with the thought of wooing Noel away from Colby and of course making an easy and quick five grand, he accepts the job.

This of course turns out to be a bad move on Regan’s part and a real bargain for Colby. It needs to be pointed out that one of the job requirements is the carrying of a gun. The permit for said gun in question is obtained via Regan’s acquaintance at police headquarters, Lt. Damico (Bendix). While the Lt. attempts to persuade Regan not to carry a gun Regan’s too caught up in making a big payday to pay his objections any heed which is good for us as it makes for a most enjoyable film. Watching how the gun, Colby, the former partner, the missing million bucks, a dame, and a wise cop all work together to suck the misguided Regan in a web of his own doing is real treat.

While the Cinematography is on the weak side, save for the last 20 minutes of the film, the writing is a strong suit. Snappy dialogue is prevalent in the exchanges between the four main players throughout. In one, Regan’s amorous advances are being thwarted by Noel and he hits her with “France fell in eighteen days, and you're not as tough as France.” No telling how the French may have taken that crack with the war being over less than two years from the films release.

My favorite line is also delivered by Regan once he’s painfully aware he’s been played for a sap by Colby when he utters to Noel “If I could get loose for five minutes I’d kick myself around the block.” Those telltale words are perfect for any number of noirs when there’s a fall guy, a dame and the smell of a quick buck to be had.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Nora Prentiss (1947)

Dr. Richard Talbot is bored with his hum drum life. His life has become routine. He shows up for work at the same time every day then heads home at six o'clock to a passionless wife and two kids. His life is forever changed when he treats a sexy night club singer after hours at his downtown office. First becoming friends, the couple quickly start an affair which eventually leads the previously up-tight Talbot to fake his own death and run off with the woman. Every move Talbot (played by Kent Smith who almost tops his performance is the noir/horror classic Cat People) makes following his decision to run off with Nora just gets him in more trouble. Ann Sheridan playing Nora isn't a femme fatale like you'd expect. Turns out she's the level headed one who tries to stop Talbot from acting like such a chump. Unfortunately, he doesn't listen to her and becomes a mess eventually attacking romantic rival Robert Alda in a drunken rage then leading cops on a high speed chase that ends badly.

According to Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Nora Prentiss is the ultimate “woman's noir”. Other films of this type - such as Joan Crawford's Flamingo Road and The Damned Don't Cry (also directed by Vincent Sherman) quickly become sappy melodramas while Nora Prentiss avoids this thanks to excellent performances from Smith, Sheridan, and a bunch of Warner Bros. regulars - including Bruce Bennett (Dark Passage, Mystery Street), Alda (The Man I Love), John Ridgely (The Big Sleep) and a young Wanda Hendrix (Ride the Pink Horse).

The film is shot in an expressionistic style by cinematographer James Wong Howe. Two parts of the film really show how "closed in" Talbot is. First is right at the beginning of the film when a scarred man is taken back to San Francisco on charges of murder. Second is later in the film when Talbot decides to coop himself up in a New York hotel room paranoid that someone from his former life will recognize him. Wong creates a very dank and claustrophobic atmosphere especially the jail scenes showing heavy shadows over the prisoner.

Director Sherman knocked out a bunch of films for Warner Bros. (his noir films include Backfire, The Unfaithful also with Sheridan, The Affair in Trinidad and The Garment Jungle) but I think this one stands out as one of his best. Not to be forgotten is the excellent film score by Franz Waxman and the very sharp dialog that showcases Sheridan's ability to crack wise.

Although Sheridan is the star, Smith steals the film. He transforms Dr. Talbot from a guy who always looks like his collars are too tight, to a paranoid drunk and then finally to a broken man who gives up on life.

Also notice the movie poster. The style of the poster is very similar to a similar Warner Bros. film, the great Mildred Pierce released two years earlier.

Written by Steve-O

Monday, June 04, 2007

Take One False Step (1949)

Written by Raven

Released by Universal in the summer of 49, Take One False Step at first glance seems to have all the ingredients needed to cook up a winner. The Players, Director, Cinematographer and even Music are handed by a team of top notch professionals.

Heading the cast is the urban and always watchable William Powell who’s teamed up with the Blonde Bombshell Shelly Winters. Support is provided by Marsha Hunt, Dorothy Hart, James Gleason, Sheldon Leonard, Art Baker, and Houseley Stevenson all of them noir fixtures.

Direction is in the hands of Chester Erskine who would have greater success as a writer in the noir genre penning such classics as Witness to Murder, Split Second and Angel Face. Franz Planer, he of such gems as The Chase, Criss Cross, Champion, 711 Ocean Drive, The Scarf, and 99 River Street is the Cinematographer. Music is under the supervision of Walter Scharf whose credits include The Glass Key and This Gun for Hire.

So with so much going for it in the way of cast and crew what went wrong? It’s this writer’s opinion it’s the story itself and the treatment of it.

The whole thing starts to unravel during the opening credits with a wacky number of shots depicting what could befall one if they in fact “Take One False Step.” We see everything from a tightrope walker falling to a person exiting a car and stepping into an open manhole and more. It’s played more for laughs than dramatics and this is a big tip off on what’s to follow.

The story itself it quite a puzzle and concerns the apparent murder of a former girl friend of Powell’s, for which he is of course falsely suspected. It’s made known early on that while in the Army during the war, Powell and Winters had a little thing going on. Since that time he’s moved back east, married and become a well know and respected educator. Winters as also moved on but not in an educated way. Strictly by chance (or fate) Powell’s in LA looking for financial backing for a new college he and his co-educators are trying to establish. He “Takes One False Step” and ends up running into Winters who’s drowning her misery in their prior favorite watering hole.

As is usually the case, one thing leads to another and against his better judgment, Powell agrees to meet Winters later at a party. Turns out the party she set up was just for two and Powell being the gentleman tries to graciously end the evening. Here’s where Shelly turns up the heat, acting wise, and goes into a boozy, bimbo jag that surely must make Powell wonder what he ever saw in her in the first place. While she whines and begs for him to stay with her, out of desperation he just leaves her sitting alone in his car and walks away. A few minutes later he returns and sees her walking back towards her house. Next morning we learn from the newspaper headlines that she’s missing and presumed murdered with a “friend” as the likely suspect.

Added to all this is a double crossing bag man whose planning to skip out on his gambling racket partners with hundred grand of a the rackets dough. Ends up he also just happens to be in cohorts with Shelly’s husband (oh yeah, she’d now married, but oh so unhappily) To add to the confusion, Powell’s who’s only trying to clear himself tracks down the bag man only to be mistaken as a hit man from the east sent out by the racket!

I like Powell probably as much as the next guy and he soldiers his way through here, but he alone is not enough to save this mess. Throw in the comedic spin put on by the cops played by Gleason and Leonard and oh brother. One on hand we’re suppose to be concerned about the jam Powell’s found himself in, yet we’re got a couple LA cops (who sound like they just got off the train for Brooklyn) that are playing for laughs. In addition while Powell is delayed in making a speech to proposed backers of his college, we’re given a fill in speaker on the topic of earth worms, not the usual stuff of noir. Add to all this is the slow pace director Erskine moves the whole thing along that it seems the affair takes much longer than the 94 minute running time and you’re got no recipe for success.

My suggestion is, if you’re a fan of Powell or Winters and like the Mike Shane style of crime film this is right up your alley. If you’re looking for high heels on wet pavement and dames as hot as lead from a smoking 45, this ain’t it.

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