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In the last half-year or so the Warner Archive Collection has been tapping RKO's odd series of budget 'B' crime movies, apparently initiated by Howard Hughes as a budget-trimming exercise. All are tough little crime movies, and one (The Tattooed Stranger) was apparently filmed by a New York based short subjects unit. It's a unique little thriller, devoid of name actors but loaded with great location work. 1949's The Threat was directed by Felix Feist, also a shot subject specialist who had made the pre-Hughes crime thriller The Devil Thumbs a Ride. Tough guy Lawrence Tierney was either too expensive or was considered too much of a trouble maker, or maybe Hughes didn't like his face. The millionaire instead boosted the gravel-voiced Charles McGraw into the lead role (but with third billing). McGraw had unnerved millions with his portrayals of sadistic thugs in movies like Mark Hellinger's The Killers. The actor's steel-eyed gaze and grizzled jaw is The Threat's one standout element.
The Threat covers forty or so intense hours after a jailbreak from Folsom Prison. Carrying through on a promise made at his sentencing, vicious killer Arnold 'Red' Kluger (McGraw) immediately kidnaps the detective who arrested him, Ray Williams (Michael O'Shea) and the District Attorney who prosecuted him, Barker MacDonald (Frank Conroy). With his slimy cohorts Nick Damon and Lefty (Anthony Caruso & Frank Richards), Kluger also seizes Carol (Virginia Grey), the girlfriend of Tony, his partner from their last big caper. Kluger suspects Carol of ratting to the cops. Using a hired moving van to slip through the roadblocks, Kluger moves this whole bunch out to a desert shack in Beaumont, there to await Tony's arrival. The police don't even know that Ray is on the job until his pregnant wife Ann (Julie Bishop) calls in, concerned. To force Ray to say what he wants over the police radio, Kluger has Barker tortured with a pair of pliers. That's only the first example of Kluger's extreme violence; poor Carol is convinced he's going to kill everybody.
The Threat shows how a pro film outfit cut corners back in the late 1940s, when bulky equipment needing lots of light prevented even cheap movies from being shot on the fly. The brief running time helps, but the main factor is the low number of sets used and the restricted angles. Director Feist limits the action to four or five cheap office sets and a Los Angeles apartment; most of the action in these locations is limited to one main angle and selected cutaways. Carol is kidnapped in an alley set used by RKO since the early talkie days. We know she's a dancer in a floor show because we see a stage door guard and just one more showgirl; even the poster on the wall, for something called "Water Babies" is re-purposed from the previous year's Mighty Joe Young.
All the money was apparently spent on location work out in the West San Fernando Valley, to show the moving van's progress toward and arrival at a literal shack in the middle of nowhere. An airplane buzzes around once or twice (gotta have aircraft in a Hughes film, it's the law) but we never even see it land. The film's finish never bothers to wrap up Carol's confrontation with her ex-boyfriend, who got her into this fix. The camera rarely moves, with one flagrant exception: a nimble crane shot that travels upward in the shack, showing that Ray can leave his locked room if he climbs over a barn-like partition.
It's fairly easy to see that the conversion of '40s "expressionist" noirs into '50s 'naturalistic' noirs was spurred by budgetary realities -- everything was more expensive and the movie audience was shrinking because of television. Thus a movie like The Threat must sell its thrills without access to elaborate visuals. Hero Michael O'Shea and thuggish hood Anthony Caruso are off-the shelf performances, and frightened hostage Virginia Gray is effective considering the narrow confines of her role. But the wild card is McGraw's maniac fugitive Red Kluger. When not hitting people or yelling at Carol to Shut Up, Kluger stares, broods and grinds his teeth. He plays Mr. Cool when it's time for action, but at other times tends to simmer like a teakettle. Kluger goes about as far as a bad man could in a 1949 film with a Production Code seal. He shoots a cop, orders a man tortured, pistol whips several people, hurls Carol to the floor and smashes a sturdy-looking chair over Ray's head. 1 When the luckless Moving Van driver (Don McGuire) pulls a gun on Kluger, he really should have shot him without delay. Kluger instead gets the frightened man talking ... and you can guess what happens.
Most critics reviewing The Threat were impressed. Small movies like this were often either sneered at or ignored, but several influential papers and magazines took notice of Charles McGraw's performance and singled him out for praise. Alan K. Rode, author of Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, suspects that McGraw or his agent may have drummed up extra attention with trade ads, and maybe faked some fan letters. Whatever happened, Howard Hughes was sufficiently impressed to sign McGraw to a star contract, a move that gave us great pictures like Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin. As with several finds that Howard Hughes promoted but then seems to have lost interest in (Kenneth Tobey, for one) Charles McGraw wouldn't last as a leading player, but The Threat gave his career a real boost.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Threat is a very good transfer of elements in almost perfect shape. All of the RKO craft departments hold up their ends. I could be wrong, but it looks as if the scenes in the Beaumont shack were all filmed on the hot San Fernando Valley location -- the sweat on the actors looks very real.
Note that, even though many violent acts are pictured, anything really gruesome happens just off screen. Optical push-ins may have been added to violent shots to focus our attention, or to avoid violent details. I looked at the "pliers torture" scene twice -- and I don't think we ever actually SEE them. The unfathomable Production Code principle is to restrict images of weapons. This is crazy -- what disturbs us is Kluger's impassive face while Barker is wailing in pain!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Threat rates:
1. This moment is almost laughable. By the look of the scene, detective Ray Williams' brains should be bashed out, but he merely seems a bit dazed. Ray's superhuman qualities impress us yet again when he is shot in the leg. The wound doesn't prevent him from climbing to the rafters of the shack and leaping down upon one of the crooks.
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T'was Ever Thus.