Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Threat (1949)

The Threat could have been just another solidly competent B noir but Charles McGraw’s performance makes it something else again, a minor noir classic.

McGraw is ‘Red’ Kluger, a convicted murderer who has just broken out of Folsom Prison. Kluger had vowed that he would escape and take vengeance on the two men he considered to be responsible for his conviction - the District Attorney Barker MacDonald (Frank Conroy) and Detective Ray Williams (Michael O’Shea). Within hours of breaking out he has already made good on part of his threat, kidnapping the DA from his office in broad daylight. What the police don’t know is that he has also snatched Ray Williams. For good measure he’s also snatched his ex-girlfriend Carol (Virginia Grey), whom he suspects of double-crossing him.

Kluger and his accomplices, a couple of not-too-bright but fairly loyal hoods named Nick and Lefty, set off for the desert where they are to rendezvous with Kluger’s erstwhile partner Tony. Tony is holed up in Mexico but the plan is for him to fly in and pick up Kluger and his hoods. Kluger has come up with an ingenious plan to reach the desert rendezvous without being spotted by the cops. He has stolen Ray Williams’ police car and has hidden the car, with Ray and the DA inside it, inside a removalists’ van. The plan works pretty well although Kluger has to gun down an overly curious sheriff’s deputy they encounter at a gas station.

Up to this point the movie has been constant action. Once the desert hideout is reached the tone changes abruptly, to nail-biting tension as Kluger and his pals wait for Tony’s arrival. They wait and they wait. Tony doesn’t show. Kluger keeps his cool but Nick and Lefty are getting decidedly jumpy. Carol is becoming frantic, fearing that Kluger will decide she really did double-cross him. She knows that Kluger is a man who doesn’t think twice about killing. The kidnapped DA and detective are getting kind of nervous too, anticipating that Tony’s arrival in the plane will be the end of the line for them. They just have to hope that before that happens Kluger will make a mistake.

The police meanwhile are not having much success in their search for the escaped killer and they still don’t know that Kluger has Detective Williams. Kluger has forced Ray to radio in to headquarters, telling his superior Inspector Murphy (Robert Shayne) that he’s busily involved in some routine enquiries. Ray cleverly words his message in such a way as to let Murphy know that something is wrong, but unfortunately his ruse is too clever and Murphy fails to spot the clue.

The film focuses most of its attention on Kluger and his gang and their captives, rather than on the police hunt. Most of what we know about the man-hunt comes from the messages picked up on Kluger’s police band radio. 

Director Felix E. Feist helmed quite a few extremely fine noirs, including Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and This Woman Is Dangerous (with Joan Crawford as a lady gangster). Feist made mostly B-movies but had the knack of turning out well-crafted movies on limited budgets so his movies tend to be a cut above the average B-feature. The Threat shows him at his best. It’s superbly paced, the tension is relentless and Feist throws in some clever and effective visual flourishes (including an excellent very high-angle shot in the desert cabin).

Dick Irving Hyland’s screenplay is fairly routine and the dialogue doesn’t exactly sparkle. It does however give Feist just enough to work with.

Michael O’Shea is adequate as Detective Williams. Anthony Caruso and Frank Richards as Nick and Lefty are perfect small-time hoodlums. Virginia Grey has some strong scenes which she handles deftly, playing Carol as a woman getting closer and closer to hysteria. But this movie belongs to Charles McGraw. Kluger is the character who dominates the movie and he’s one of the great memorable noir villains. Kluger is the archetypal cold-blooded killer. He displays little emotion. He kills without hesitation and without giving the matter a second thought. It’s a wonderfully chilling performance. McGraw is like a cobra mesmerising its victims.

The Warner Archive MOD DVD is absolutely barebones, with not even a trailer, but it’s an extremely good transfer.

The Threat is a great little B noir offering 66 minutes of high tension. Highly recommended.

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