Saturday, July 11, 2015

Stubs – The Threat

The Threat (1949) Starring: Michael O'Shea, Virginia Grey Charles McGraw  Directed by Felix E. Feist. Screenplay by Dick Irving Hyland and Hugh King. Produced by Hugh King. Run Time: 66 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Crime, Drama

RKO is one studio that seemed to make a lot of films that ended up labelled film noir. The lower budgets of such films fit in well with the mini-mayor’s emphasis on B-Pictures. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), an RKO production is often hailed as the first film noir. During the 40’s the studio had under contract many of the actors most associated with the genre: Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Graham, Jane Greer and Lawrence Tierney. The studio would release such noir classics as Johnny Angel (1945), Nocturne (1946), Crossfire (1947), They Won’tBelieve Me (1947) and one of the greatest of all,  Out of the Past (1947).

For this picture, RKO would use the lesser known Charles McGraw. While McGraw would never reach the heights of Mitchum or Ryan, he still had a distinctive presence on the screen. Good-looking with a gravelly voice, the actor came to Hollywood in 1942 after serving a tour of duty in World War II. He worked at 20th Century Fox, Universal and Eagle-Lion, appearing in such films The Undying Monster (1942), The Killers (1946), T-Men (1947) and The Farmer's Daughter (1947) oftentimes in small and sometimes uncredited roles. Though he does make an impression in T-Men, McGraw would not get his first chance at a lead role until The Threat (1949). 

The story opens after Arnold "Red" Kluger (Charles McGraw), a cold-blooded killer, escapes from Folsom State Prison. Kluger has previously threatened the lives of Los Angeles police detective who arrested him, Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea), and the District Attorney Barker "Mac" MacDonald (Frank Conroy) who prosecuted him.

Williams is at home recuperating from a broken rib with his pregnant wife Ann (Julie Bishop) when his boss Police Insp. Murphy (Robert Shayne) calls to tell him the news of the escape. Even though Murphy advise Williams to sit this one out, Williams gets dressed to go down to police headquarters. His wife is none too happy, but this is apparently Williams’ way.

But he gets no further than his own garage, where he is jumped by Kluger and Nick Damon (Anthony Caruso) who knock him out, kidnap him and steal his police car. Murphy doesn’t know William’s on his way, so when Ann calls, he tells her that he’s probably operating on his own.

Meanwhile, the security around District Attorney MacDonald is tricked by Kluger’s men, who are disguised as painters. Kluger gets the privilege of capturing MacDonald himself. The thugs roll the DA up in a painter’s tarp and they get away.

Arnold Kluger (Charles McGraw) has District Attorney Barker MacDonald (Frank
Conroy) and Detective Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea kidnapped so he can get his revenge.
Next up for kidnapping is Carol (Virginia Grey) a showgirl and former girlfriend of Klugers. All three victims are taken to his Los Angeles hideout. There, Kluger and his gang listen to the police band radio and know what steps are being taken to recapture him.

Kluger wants Williams to call in a false report, but the detective resists. It is only when Kluger threatens to torture MacDonald that Williams complies, calling Murphy with a bad lead.

Williams only cooperates when Kluger threatens to harm
MacDonald. Another kidnap victim Carol (Virginia Grey) watches.
Kluger is a man with a lot of unsettled business. He questions Williams about Carol, whom Williams identifies as Tony Anzo’s girlfriend, rather than Kluger’s. Kluger suspects Carol of having turned informant, but Williams tells him, in front of her, that she never talked. But that isn’t enough to exonerate her in Kluger’s mind. There is the matter of the bracelet on Carol’s arm, which had been in a now empty safety deposit box. When he asks Williams about that, the detective reveals that the police had received an anonymous tip from Mexico City and when they got there it was already empty. Carol says that makes Tony, the man who gave her the bracelet and the squealer and the one most likely to have taken the $100,000 that was inside it.

Kluger trusts no one, least of all Carol, who pleads her innocence to working with the police.
The news doesn’t deter Kluger from moving forward with his plans to meet up with Tony in the desert outside Banning, California, a rendezvous the two had planned all along. To get out there, Kluger needs cover, so he hires an unsuspecting mover, Joe Turner (Don McGuire) who arrives promptly and is taken hostage with the others.

The load the police car into the back of the moving van and then put most of the furniture from the house in there as well. Williams and MacDonald, still tied up and gagged are put in the front seat of the car, the other members of Kluger’s gang, along with Kluger himself ride in the back. Lefty (Frank Richards) is Joe’s cabmate.

While they manage to avoid detention at one of the many roadblocks the police have put up around Los Angeles, a suspicious motorcycle cop at a gas station tells Lefty to unload the van when he hears Williams hit the car horn. Kluger shots the officer dead through one of the holes he’s had drilled in the van’s walls for such an occasion. While the officer is wounded he reads the name on the van.

Kluger shoots an off-duty CHiPs officer through a hole in the moving van.
Murphy and his men go to the owner of the moving company’s house and have him take them to the office. There they find the order Joe had written out, though the destination is not where they’re actually headed.  But still, they have a description of the van and the next morning, a LA sheriff’s plane spots it. However, Kluger, his gang and their hostages have escaped in the police car and driven to a shack near an abandoned airfield outside of Banning.

The authorities find the moving van, but have no idea where Kluger has gone.
Williams and MacDonald are kept handcuffed in an inner room, while the others wait for Tony. Listening to the police radio in the car, Kluger hears that the police are expecting Tony to fly in from Mexico, so he has Williams send a false report to Murphy, giving another location for the rendezvous. While Williams complies, he also relays a message to Ann, sending his regards to Dexter, the name Ann wants to call their baby.

False alarm. They run outside when they hear a plane, but it's not Tony's.
Tiring of being pushed around Joe brandishes a gun he had in the truck. But Kluger manages to talk him out of the gun and just when Joe feels relaxed, Kluger shoots him dead.

Kluger gives Joe back his gun, bullets first.
Later when Nick and Lefty fall asleep, Kluger removes the bullets from their guns. Carol makes one more attempt to seduce her way free, but Kluger turns her down.

Kluger trusts no one and decides to empty everyone's gun while they're asleep.
Meanwhile, Ann picks up on the code embedded in the message, remembering Williams promise to use the name Dexter only if he "had a gun to his back." She warns Murphy using a police radio, so naturally Kluger overhears it. While he’s outside, Carol finds the keys to the handcuffs and gives it to Williams. Freed, he and MacDonald ambush Nick and Lefty and handcuff them. Unaware the guns are empty, Williams and MacDonald retreat back to the inner room with Carol.

Kluger listens to the radio in the police car. 
Kluger enraged by the tables being turned, shoots through the door, hitting his partners, but also wounding Williams. When he hears the sound of Tony’s airplane overhead, Kluger runs outside. This gives Williams a chance to climb up on the rafters of the house and into the outer room. But when he jumps Kluger, he gets overwhelmed and Kluger knocks him out with a chair.

Carol saves the day, picking up Kluger’s gun and shooting him dead with it. Williams recovers in time to thank Carol for her help and to ready himself to take on Tony.

Later, at the hospital, Ann informs her husband that they’re having twins and only one of them will have to be named Dexter.

I’m always amazed at how much action these shorter films pack in. There is rarely a dull moment in The Threat’s 66 minute running time, which more than makes up for its rather straight ahead linear plot. Some of Kluger’s daring plans and how easily they work out provide some surprises, but you pretty much know at the beginning of the film that his plans won’t ultimately pan out.

In the what might have been department, Gloria Grahame, under contract to RKO, was assigned the role of Carol, but turned it down. Not sure if she would have brought more than reputation to the part. I think it would have been a really great twist if Carol had killed Kluger with plans to run away with Tony when he landed. That to me would have made her part more femme fatale than just victim, which is what she is throughout most of the film. Grahame was probably right in avoiding the role, even if she was suspended. There just isn’t enough meat on that bone.

Overall, there is very little character development throughtout the film.The good guy, Williams, is good to a fault and almost to his detriment. He is told to stay home, but he can’t let a direct order keep him from what he thinks and knows he must do. He even manages to have that coded message in his back pocket. Michael O'Shea who played Williams, did not start out as an actor, but rather as a comedian and emcee at speakeasies. I guess all those prohibition era films were right when they showed floor shows. O’Shea had a brief career in films, lasting less than ten years. He doesn’t really shine in this role, so I’m not surprised.

Kluger is bad with no redeeming qualities on exhibit at all. He seems to have a singular purpose and only harm can come to anyone who crosses his plans. Charles McGraw  is an actor who plays characaters on both sides of the law, a gunman in The Killers and a cop in The Narrow Margin (1952). His voice and rugged looks made him a leading man in film noirs. While this role does not display much versatility, his acting is still the main draw of the movie. 

Not a great film noir, but not a bad programmer. There is just enough intrigue and McGraw’s performance to make the film worth watching. While I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to see it, but the next time it’s playing, it might be worth your time to check it out.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

The Threat is available through the Warner Archives:

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