Ok, you may ask, just who exactly is Charles McGraw, and why should we care?
He is probably known today by a far more appreciative audience than he was in his Forties and Fifties noir heyday. No question, though: McGraw was never a star in a prestigious studio production.
Establishment Hollywood pigeon-holed McGraw as a highly proficient supporting player –usually as cops, military men, colorful locals and saddle tramps — rather than the principal mover in some of the best low-budget film noirs ever made.
While he won solid roles in movies directed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (1963’s The Birds), Stanley Kubrick (1960’s Spartacus), Stanley Kramer (1958’s The Defiant Ones and 1963’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World) and Richard Brooks (1967’s In Cold Blood), McGraw’s rich noir resume was often overlooked.
It’s just the reverse today.
In the introduction to author Alan K. Rode’s essential reference, Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy(McFarland & Co., 2008), Jim Steranko asks:
Is it my imagination or is there a note of irony in the fact that so many of yesterday’s leading men (and women) have vanished from the public consciousness, while certain actors who supported them on the big screen have not only remained cultural favorites, but often become cult icons?
McGraw is vividly etched in shadowy black-and-white as the key hit man in The Killers, Robert Siodmak’s 1946 reworking of Ernest Hemingway, a movie that launched an underused MGM beauty by the name of Ava Gardner. (In the movie’s 1964 remake, McGraw’s part was played less ominously by a talkative Lee Marvin.)
Probably his best noir titles were made with directors Anthony Mann (1947’s T-Men and 1949’s Border Incident) and Richard Fleischer (1950’s Armored Car Robbery and 1952’s The Narrow Margin (DVD-R)).
The latter movie effectively paired McGraw with Marie Windsor, an actress author Eddie Muller — (in his indispensable 1968 tome, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir) — describes as a one-time Miss Utah…statuesque, 5’9,” with a balcony that could support a double run of pinochle. Sexy, evil femme fatales were her lot…she was the undisputed Queen of ‘B” noirs.
Windsor met her match in McGraw, who Muller regards as simply a natural on-screen…. McGraw’s broad, blocky presence lent any scene additional heft. As villains, not many players were as physically threatening….The most distinctively gruff voice in the movies was strangled out of McGraw; it sounded like a fist was gripping his larynx whenever he deigned to utter dialogue.