Alan K. Rode on Noir and Charles McGraw

Michael Fox January 28, 2008

One of the pleasures of the Noir City film festival — as with any time-travel into the vaults of American cinema — is getting introduced to, or reacquainted with, a coterie of marvelous character actors. One could make a case that the general lack of texture and depth in contemporary Hollywood movies derives from a shortage of solid supporting players. (Or, more precisely, from the shortsighted studio execs, producers, and directors who shove them to the edge of the frame in order to give the stars even more close-ups.) One underrated stud, the square-jawed Charles McGraw, receives a posthumous spin in the spotlight Wed., Jan. 30, with the ace 1949 pictures “Border Incident” and “Reign of Terror.” The tribute coincides with the publication of Alan K. Rode’s Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy (McFarland, $45), a colorful and illuminating study of not only an actor’s saga, but Hollywood’s evolution. The L.A.-based Rode, a cofounder of the Film Noir Foundation (Noir City’s parent,) programs and hosts a Sunday noir matinee series at the Silent Movie Theatre down south. He arranged the special guests at this year’s festival, Joan Leslie (opening night) and Marsha Hunt, and will introduce the McGraw double bill. He sang the praises of San Francisco movie audiences on the horn from L.A., then got down to brass tacks.

SF360: What makes Charles McGraw such an iconic film noir figure?

Alan K. Rode: McGraw’s acting, his appearance and particularly his voice ushered in a new period of post-World War II noir realism. Previously, you had bad guys and you had tough guys, certainly in the gangster pictures of the ’30s at Warner Bros., with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. But when you see McGraw in ‘The Killers’ (1946) and ‘T-Men’ (1947), where he kills Wallace Ford by locking him in a steam bath, it was apparent that movies hadn’t seen a heavy quite like this before. And that continued when he started playing tough cops. He worked both sides of the film-noir street with equal abandon.

_SF360: Your book serves as an excellent argument that the real story of Hollywood is best told through the careers of supporting actors rather than movie stars. _

Rode: I think that’s absolutely true. McGraw got to Hollywood in 1942, stayed there and worked almost until he died in 1980. In the book, I employ McGraw as a tour guide through the Hollywood system and all of its tumultuous changes from the postwar period, the advent of television and into the ’60s and ’70s when corporations took over the studios and changed the town into essentially what it is now.

_SF360: You describe the brief window when McGraw coulda been a contender. Success in Hollywood is a crapshoot, of course, and everybody can’t be a star, but it’s hard not to feel a twinge of empathy for him. _

Rode: McGraw, at one point, was mentioned in the same breath as Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. Same era in Hollywood. Charlie got to town a little bit earlier, but he went off to war and everybody forgot about him. He had to start all over again. As his star rose as a character player, McGraw became a minor sensation in 1949 and got inked to an RKO contract. But unlike Douglas and Lancaster, it just didn’t happen for him. The advent of television and the fact that he was at RKO were the obvious circumstances that hurt his career. McGraw also might not have had the star charisma – obviously an intangible — and he had a nihilistic streak characterized by his drinking and excessive joie de vivre. Charlie was always the first and last guy at the bar. Bottom line is he became a second-tier leading man at RKO, poised to grab the brass ring, scored on television and several films and from there he morphed back into being a character actor. And that’s where he stayed. Not a bad place to be, though. He got the work.

SF360: So what was the high point of his career?

Rode: The mid-1950s. In 1952, McGraw left RKO because Howard Hughes basically had ruined the studio and everyone was departing akin to jumping off the sinking Titanic. McGraw landed on his feet: He starred in two television series in 1954-55, ‘The Adventures of Falcon’ followed by Warner’s short-lived series, ‘Casablanca,’ that had McGraw playing Rick. He went on to star in ‘The Bridges of Toko-Ri’ (1956) and there was talk of his getting nominated for an Academy Award for that role.

_SF360: Spill the beans on the McGraw double bill screening Wednesday, Jan. 30. _

Rode: ‘Border Incident’ was a significant movie for McGraw in a special time career-wise. In 1949 he appeared in eight movies and his career was really taking off. McGraw was a hot actor. He went from a guy who was struggling to find work — he was setting pins in a bowling alley and tending bar between acting gigs — to appearing in a significant supporting role at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It’s hard for us to understand what a cinematic gold standard Metro was back then: truly the Cadillac of movie studios. So this was a big picture for him. It is a surprisingly ruthless docu-noir about an alien smuggling operation at the border with two undercover policemen — one from Mexico, the other from the U.S. — who team up to stop it. Think ‘T-Men at the Border.’ While McGraw plays a particularly odious heavy, the film itself is fascinating in another way because it was so at odds with the wholesome image of MGM as the family studio of Andy Hardy, ‘The Thin Man’ series and historical dramas like ‘A Tale of a Two Cities.’

‘Reign of Terror’ is a historical picture filmed and written in the noir style. Not only did you have John Alton behind the camera, but you had Anthony Mann directing, Walter Wanger as the producer and the great William Cameron Menzies, probably the most talented production designer in the history of Hollywood. His resume includes ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘The Thief of Baghdad’ — both versions. Menzies was the nominal producer, but what he actually did was design all of the sets on a miniscule budget. ‘Reign of Terror,’ also known as ‘The Black Book,’ was just a blip on the Hollywood radar screen at the time, but it had a masterful ensemble of talent and is quite a film. I think the audience in San Francisco is going to be blown away when they see the print we’re going to show; it’s a strikingly beautiful picture and very suspenseful.

SF360: What was your biggest challenge in writing this particular Hollywood biography?

Rode: The most challenging thing about writing about Charlie McGraw is he deliberately obscured a lot of things about his life. He was a life-of-the-party guy, but also a very private man, and hardly anyone knew him intimately. During his publicity tours for films, talking with press agents and reporters, he basically made up all this stuff about his World War II record in France with Gen. Patton and that he got wounded in the knee. There was also an embellished boxing career and claims of being a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle. Much of this was total fabrication. In fact, the closest Charlie got to the war in Europe was Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. So not only were there very few people around to talk to who were really close to him, but a lot of the archival press information about McGraw I had to take with a grain of salt, and really work to separate fact from fiction. There was a lot of information on the surface, even about the way he died, that I discovered to be superficial and inaccurate. I had to be very discerning. If I would have been able to talk to one person in McGraw’s life that could have shed more light on him, it would have been his wife Freda. She was a beautiful Eurasian woman that he met in London while touring in the play ‘Golden Boy.’ They got married in 1938 and divorced in 1968. They always remained close. Charlie was Freda’s one and only love; she just couldn’t live with him anymore, at a certain point.

SF360: There’s something a little weird and sad about your description of McGraw altering his personality in the ’40s and ’50s to incorporate his off-screen persona.

Rode: [His daughter] Jill claimed she saw her father change over the years. This was her specific observation as a child: She remembered him embellishing the rough voice, and he increasingly wasn’t home as much as he should have. His drinking buddies would call him Moxie, which was his signature role in ‘T-Men.’ She also remembers her father using the term ‘Bright Boy,’ which his character says in ‘The Killers.’

_SF360: So is Charles McGraw a tragic figure? _

Rode: I think ultimately McGraw became a tragic figure on a personal level because, whether he became a movie star or not, he was an extremely successful actor, had a beautiful wife and daughter, the home on the hill in Studio City, the pool in the backyard, and he ended up losing all of that as a result of his descent into alcoholism. He simply could not stop drinking. Charlie ended up finally losing his career, and dying in a horribly unfortunate accident. It was a noir-stained legacy, as well. In the book, I briefly discuss the incredible hard times experienced by his daughter, who provided me some important insights about her father. So you see the lineage of a tragic life. But as an actor, he had a superb career. He was in more than 140 movies and TV shows and had many memorable performances. When you talk with his coworkers — since the book came out, many more people have surfaced, saying, ‘I wish you’d talked to me’ — everyone was fond of Charlie, respected his talent, thought he was a unique actor and a good person.

_SF360: They really don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they? _

Rode: I think that nowadays film actors are selected using a cookie cutter and they all have to be a certain type or have the same physical appearance. The character actors, like Charles McGraw, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, William Demarest, you just don’t see these people anymore. They were unique craftsmen. When these performers appeared onscreen, their talent and their presence, they simply commanded your attention.