One of Charles McGraw’s best known roles was as one of two hit men, the other being William Conrad, who comes to a small New Jersey town to kill former boxer, now a gas station attendant, known as “The Swede.” It’s a small, though significant role that stands out long after he is no longer on the screen. Whether McGraw plays an evil assassin on the wrong side of the law, as he does in “The Killers” or he’s a gruff cop like in “The Narrow Margin” or “Armored Car Robbery,” his graveled voice and solid rugged looks created one of the most distinctive and memorable performers on screen. Though McGraw has appeared in a variety of films over his career, westerns like “Blood on the Moon,” “ Saddle the Wind” and “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here,” he is best known for his roles in film noir works including “T-Men,” “Brute Force,” “Side Street,” “Road Block,” “Border Incident” and a minor gem called “The Threat.”
Released late in 1949, “The Threat” is a low budget film from RKO Pictures directed by Felix E. Feist who is probably best known for films like “The Devil Thumb’s a Ride,” “The Man Who Cheated Himself” and “Donovan’s Brain.” The script is by Dick Irving Hyland based on a story by Hugh King who also produced the film.
The tale itself is nothing new, even back in its day, it was not unusual. A tale of a convict, “Red” Kluger (Charles McGraw) who escapes from Folsom prison and vows to get even with the people he believes are responsible for putting him there. They are Barker McDonald, the District Attorney (Frank Conroy), police detective Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea) and Kluger’s former girlfriend, Carol (Virginia Grey). While Michael O’Shea and Virginia Grey get top billing, it is third billed Charles McGraw as the nasty killer with veins as cold as ice who steals the movie. McGraw is vicious, cold blooded, plugging each his victims not once but four and five times.
He boldly kidnaps the District Attorney right out his office. The detective is quickly taken outside his home and his girlfriend right outside the club she works at. The plan is to head to Mexico with the help of Kluger’s former partner. They hold up in a rundown shack in the middle of nowhere where they wait and continue to wait for the plane ride from Kluger’s former partner that never comes.
With a running time of about 66 minutes, “The Threat” moves along at a quick and exciting pace, there are no dull moments, thanks mostly to McGraw’s outstanding performance. Sure there are holes in the story, and a weak character or two that are a bit hard to swallow, but the film moves at such a quick clip you hardly notice. One of the weakest written characters is Joe Turner (Don McGuire), a partner in a trucking business and unlucky enough to be forced to help Kluger and his two goons on the trip. Turner had multiple opportunities to attempt an escape, and even had the opportunity to kill Kluger with a hidden gun, but unconvincingly is talked into giving up the weapon by Kluger. He pays severely for this mistake dearly with four bullets.
Also in the cast are Julie Bishop at Detective Brown’s pregnant wife, Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards as Kluger’s two stooges, and Robert Shayne as police inspector Murphy. Shayne is most likely best known to baby boomers as Lt. Henderson in the 1950’s TV show “Adventures of Superman.”
“The Threat” is one of those small B films that prove crime does not pay, maybe not, but Charles McGraw sure makes it entertaining. The film opened in New York at the RKO Palace on Broadway where it shared the bill with 8 Vaudeville acts both lasting just one week, it then move on to the bottom half of a twin bill and quickly disappeared.