– Forensic technician holding bloodied coveralls: ‘Whoever wore these got plugged. Note the hole.’
– Tough cop: ’I see it. I put it there.’
– Investigator looking into an abandoned car: ‘There’s a lot of blood in the back seat, lieutenant.’
— Tough cop: ‘Not enough to suit me.’
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, continuing today our three-blog series covering one of Frank’s all-time favorite actors.
In Alan K. Rode’s excellent biography of film noir veteran Charles McGraw, the author directly quotes (see above) the pointedly terse dialogue delivered by the raspy-voiced actor portraying a veteran L.A. police lieutenant doggedly pursing the murderer of his partner.
The movie is director Richard Fleischer’s superb 1950 RKO thriller, Armored Car Robbery, one of McGraw’s best outings. Filmed over a mere 16 days at a series of locations in and around Los Angeles (including Wrigley Field), the movie has a gang masterminded by a duplicitous villain (superbly played by William Talman) staging a daring robbery at the old ballpark involving an armored car loaded with cash .
There’s a shootout, and McGraw’s partner goes down. At the hospital McGraw’s character is told: ‘I couldn’t save him, lieutenant. I’m sorry.’ McGraw has to break the news to his dead partner’s wife sitting in the waiting room.
In what author Rode terms ‘the bluntest expression of bereavement in film history,’ the police lieutenant says to her, ‘Tough break, Marsha.’ That’s it. (The moment is captured in the above photo with McGraw opposite Anne Nagel as the hapless widow.)
The handling of the sequence is typical of this direct-to-the-point picture lasting barely more than an hour. (The movie opened in L.A. on June 8, 1950, as the second half of a double bill under feature presentation, Columbia’s The Good Humor Man, a slapstick caper starring Jack Carson as an ice cream vendor enmeshed in a crime ring. Does anyone remember that picture?)
In his Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (McFarland & Co., 2008), Rode writes that in Armored Car Robbery the actor ‘was John Law personified.’
Novelist James Elroy once said in an interview that had he been the subject of a typically intense McGraw movie interrogation, the crime fiction writer personally would have been so intimidated that he would have “given it all up” regardless of whether he was guilty or not.
The actor excelled equally playing nasties. As we noted in last week’s blog, McGraw’s implacably cruel physiognomy is vividly etched in shadowy black-and-white in 1946′s TheKillers, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 reworking of Ernest Hemingway. McGraw and William Conrad (pictured below right) were the hit men.
Probably his best noir titles as a ruthless villains were made with directors Anthony Mann (1947′s T-Men and 1949′s Border Incident). Catch McGraw in the former as Moxie, the ruthless torpedo of a counterfeit gang, as per Rode, who ‘parboils (stool pigeon known as the Schemer) Wallace Ford in a steam bath.
The scene was described, writes Rode, as having raised movie cruelty to a new level. McGraw’s character here is the cinematic equivalent of dry ice.
Born Charles Crisp Butters in Des Moines, Iowa in 1914, McGraw, the only child of a middle class couple (his father worked for the Goodyear tire company), grew up in Akron, Ohio. After a semester at the Univ. of Akron, McGraw took off for New York to try his hand at acting.
His big break came in 1937, when he landed a supporting part in the Group Theatre’s Broadway production Golden Boy. The cast included John Garfield, Frances Farmer, Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, Howard Da Silva and Karl Malden, all Hollywood bound. Rode notes that McGraw paid his dues with the company, working diligently with some of the brightest acting teachers associated with the Group Theatre. By 1942, McGraw was at Fox making his debut in a horror picture, The Undying Monster, playing a Scottish groomsman.
It wasn’t until The Killers that McGraw’s film noir career began. Over the ensuing 11 years, McGraw starred in 22 noirs, many of the titles produced at RKO. A fair sampling would have to include The Long Night, Roses Are Red, The Gangster, The Threat, Side Street, His Kind of Woman (with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum) and Roadblock.
In our final McGraw blog, we’ll cover the actor’s untimely — and grisly — death. It’s straight out of film noir. Stay tuned.