NOIR CITY 6: CHARLES McGRAW: BIOGRAPHY OF A FILM NOIR TOUGH GUY—Interview With Alan K. Rode
Are you ready? Have you dusted off your rain-weathered fedora and bent its brim? Cinched your raincoat? Straightened the hem of your nylons? Polished your handgun? As I announced earlier, Noir City is on its way this week and I'm starting out my coverage with an interview with author Alan K. Rode.
I met Alan at last year's Noir City Film Festival where I discovered that—along with "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller—he was one of the key forces behind the Film Noir Foundation and the festival proper. During the course of our conversation I learned he was working on a biography of noir heavy Charles McGraw. Admitting I was fairly new to noir and not familiar with McGraw, Rode took it upon himself to educate me by forwarding me copies of The Threat (1949) and Roadblock (1951), which I devoured before moving on to T-Men (1947) and Border Incident (1949).
I've spent this last year familiarizing myself not only with McGraw's films but Rode's prodigious online presence, not only his interviews with Muller for The Film Noir Foundation's website but also for The Big Chat, where he has likewise moderated interviews with Andrew Dickos, Arthur Lyons, Lee Server, John O'Dowd and Karen Burroughs Hannsberry.
Rode is also a frequent contributor to Film Monthly where he's reviewed 711 Ocean Drive (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Bob Le Flambeur [Bob The Gambler] (1955), Border Incident (1949), Crime Wave (1954), D.O.A. (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956), The Lodger (1944) / Hangover Square (1945), The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), Moonrise (1948), and The Well (1951). He's likewise dispatched from the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival for 2002, 2004, and 2005; the American Cinematheque Film Noir Festival for 2003, 2004, and 2005; and Noir City (2003). And he's reported on the Centenniel Tribute to Otto Preminger and Glenn Ford's 90th Birthday Tribute in Hollywood.
Along with being on the Board of Directors for the Film Noir Foundation and writing for Film Monthly, Alan Rode likewise contributes vintage DVD commentaries and special features for VCI Entertainment and Fox Home Entertainment. He has performed numerous on-stage commentaries and interviews with film actors, writers and producers at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival, the Santa Fe Film Noir Festival, the Danger and Despair Film Series in San Francisco, the Sci-fi, Horror and Fantasy Film Festival in Los Angeles, and is an associate producer and guest moderator of the annual Noir City Film Festivals in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In October 2007, his volume on McGraw—Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy—was published by McFarland. James Ellroy has described Rode's biography as "A spellbinding account of the great noir heavy … and a must-have addition to all film-noir libraries. Deft biography and overall wild tale." Turner Classic Movies has likewise given the book a rave review at their website, noting that Rode's biography "relates the startling life of the memorable character actor against the backdrop of the old Hollywood studio system through anti-trust divestiture and the rise of television into the modern era of filmmaking." They conclude: "Alan K. Rode gives us an intimate biography of a familiar, yet heretofore obscure actor, a wonderful narrative history of Hollywood and an incisive look at the evolution of the film noir style."
Equally glowing in his praise is Gary Sweeney at The Midnight Palace. Sweeney observes that "Rode has taken on a somewhat difficult subject in McGraw. Like many actors in the sub-superstar realm, his tale hasn't been documented a million times over, which generally makes for a more tedious research process. Rode tackles the job with extreme precision. Very little, if anything, seems to be left out." The only thing that confuses Sweeney is how Rode managed to fit such a wealth of information in just under 230 pages. He chalks it up to great writing! I would have to agree.
Alan K. Rode: He first captured my imagination when I was a kid and my father took my brother and I to see Spartacus. What I remember from that—this was back in 1960—was when Kirk Douglas killed McGraw by putting his head in that vat of chunky beef soup. I was somehow disappointed. I [then] noticed him over the years. As time went on and my interest in film became more focused, I kept taking notice of him. He struck me as being a unique actor who brought an authentic toughness and boldness to the screen—particularly in the post-war film noirs—and nobody knew very much about him. I started following his career and accumulating information about him.
Guillén: I recall that last year when we met at Noir City I told you I didn't know who Charles McGraw was; but, that wasn't entirely true. It ended up that I knew him from his performances in Spartacus, In Cold Blood and The Birds. I just didn't associate his name with those performances. It was his early noir work that I was thoroughly unfamiliar with and I'm pleased that, with your incentive, I've caught many of those earlier performances this past year on DVD.
Rode: McGraw is the kind of person who—a lot of people who have seen the book—his name doesn't get through to them; but, then when they look at his face on the cover of the book, they go, "Oh, I know him!" He really is in that pantheon of character actors and secondary leading men—but mainly character actors—who people can identify: Charles McGraw, Sidney Greenstreet, all of those type of people that simply aren't around anymore.
Guillén: As George Sweeney has indicated in his review for The Midnight Palace, your task was made all the more daunting for being original research. But to paraphrase your own words, there is as much about McGraw in your book as could be found and as much as could be told. What was your research strategy? Where did you start and how did it gain momentum over time?
Rode: The original momentum to transform my hobbied obsession with Charles McGraw into a book came from a serendipitous meeting with Mildred "Millie" Black who played a large part in the book and who I became very close with. Once I met her and I started hearing all the stories about Charlie, about Old Hollywood and the Sunset Strip, and a lot of the photos she had, I knew I had to write a book. It then became a matter of researching the films, the television programs, trying to get a hold of everything and looking at it. I was able to go to the USC Film and Television Library and search out these various archives that had the original production notes and cast notes. I was fortunate in getting a hold of and reviewing some of Mark Hellinger's private correspondence having to do with The Killers and Brute Force, and I just kept going with it. I interviewed people and one thing lead to another. It finally got to a point where I had to say, "Enough!" The one interesting piece of research was that I thought—with McGraw coming out of the Group Theatre and the amount of people that had been blacklisted [from there]—that he had to be somehow involved in that; that there had to be an FBI file. So I requested that through the Freedom of Information Act and then, of course, when that came in, I found out that the FBI had surreptitiously investigated him over a period of years because of his alleged communism.
Guillén: That was fascinating research on your part. Speaking of Millie Black's photographs, they're stunning. Is your book basically the only place where these photographs have been published?
Rode: That's correct. The movie stills were done piecework for the studios and they're probably around in different places—some of them will turn up in EBay—but the personal photos of McGraw in her back yard playing Lady Macbeth or sitting around with friends, all that stuff, none of that has been published before.
Guillén: They're remarkable. In Jim Steranko's foreward to your book, he states: "Is it my imagination or is there a note of irony in the fact that so many of yesterday's leading men [and he names quite a few] have vanished from the public consciousness, while certain actors who supported them on the big screen [McGraw among them] have not only remained cultural favorites, but often become cult icons?" I really appreciated that statement because it tracks with an important thesis proposed by Alexander Nemerov in his study Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures, which is that supporting characters, even bit characters with minor roles, possess a "sudden fleeting centrality" that, indeed, renders them iconic. "Major characters," Nemerov writes, "require the use and subordination of minor characters in order to develop, but the secondary characters hardly remain secondary." In fact, Nemerov suggests, "they constantly threaten to disrupt the plots and upstage the protagonists." McGraw specifically is—as you describe it—"an iconic visual touchstone of the film noir style." In other words, despite being a secondary character in many of his films, McGraw is the one we remember from those films. Can you describe that film noir iconicity that McGraw possessed?
Rode: That's tough. It's almost like taking it back and saying, "What is film noir?" It's almost like beauty is in the eye of the beholder or like that Supreme Court justice who tried to define "obscenity" in an opinion and wrote, "I know it when I see it." However, I would say that McGraw brought to the screen what I'd term post-World War II noir realism. In other words, before the War and before film noir came to full flower, you had the 1930s films with gangsters; you had good guys and tough guys as bad guys, but it was declarative. There was nothing muted about the hero; there was nothing ambiguous about the bad guys. They always got their just desserts. But even the bad guys—like, for example, James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces—he died yellow because, at heart, the bad guys were all good. When the country went to war and everyone saw the things that happened as a result of the war—not only saw them but experienced them and came back—we started seeing different pictures with a harder edge. McGraw played right into that: the chiseled face, the voice, the cigarette at the corner of his mouth, the declarative dialogue that was written for him. You didn't see any of the people during the '30s, in the past decade, kill anyone like McGraw did in T-Men by locking Wallace Ford in the steam bath and grinning about it. Or running over George Murphy in Border Incident with a furrow cultivator. You had a new kind of toughness in McGraw's voice, face, and his on screen presence. Somebody told me once, they murmured into my ear, they said, "Y'know, so-and-so moves very well." When you watch McGraw on screen entering, moving in a room, he doesn't look like he's acting. He never looks down to hit his marks. He glides like a small battleship dressed in a trench coat. He gives that aura of authentic toughness as a copper and venality as a heavy. Although he was a versatile actor—he could do comedy, he could do a lot of different things—he played into that whole time and place and had that noir realism on the screen.
Guillén: Your biography is not only a detailed, well-researched portrait of Charles McGraw; but, a veritable whos-who of Hollywood film noir history, including nuanced sketches of such seminal personalities as Mark Hellinger, Robert Siodmok, Bryan Foy, Johnny Rosselli, Reed Hadley, Sidney Boehm, Crane Wilbur, Walter Wanger, Daniel Mainwaring, Earl Felton, Dick Fleischer—the list goes on and on—right down to the "anal erotic" interferences of Howard Hughes. Can you speak to your efforts to contextualize McGraw's specific career within the history of RKO's creative ensemble?
Rode: I didn't want to write a book just about Charles McGraw and just tell his life and how he lived and the movies he was in, etc. My vision as the book took shape was to use McGraw as the tour guide through those years in Hollywood that saw so much change. McGraw got to Hollywood in 1942 when the studio system was at its height and he worked up until shortly before he passed away in 1980 when the whole town had changed and all the studios were bought out by corporations, which basically is the way things are now. I wanted to use McGraw as a tour guide through that transition of Hollywood where the studio system got racked by the consent decree that took their theatres away and basically changed the entire equation in Hollywood, and also by television. I also wanted to show the evolution of film noir and how McGraw's career went through with that and how film noir actually morphed into the television, where it didn't just die. It was a process of cinematic Darwinism. Film noir went into cop shows on television and died out at the movies as the culture and the technology and the movie industry moved on. That was a conscious thematic choice I made using McGraw to lay all of that out.
Guillén: Well, it was a fascinating choice that has provided great background history for readers like myself who are still learning about film noir and the history of the Hollywood studios. At about the time you were turning on to McGraw's portrayals in film, I didn't realize it but I was indirectly turning on to him through Jim Steranko's appropriation of McGraw's persona in Steranko's innovative treatment of the comic book Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.! I have all those comic books in my collection; I still love them. Can you speak to how you hooked up with Jim Steranko and convinced him to write the foreword to your book?
Rode: I had heard through someone I knew slightly on an internet discussion board that Steranko had used McGraw as his template or his inspiration for the Nick Fury character. I thought about that and I said, "Gee, first off I have to confirm that." What I've tried to do with everything in the book is qualify—if something was a story—if it was a story I could confirm it through information. The first thing I tried to do with that piece of information was to contact Jim Steranko and ask him about that. That's exactly what I did. I went through a lengthy process and got a hold of him. He and I started an email relationship and found out, in fact, that he did base the Nick Fury character on Charles McGraw. We traded many emails. We ended up sending movies to one another. Jim and I ended up becoming good friends because of this and about every other month we now get on the phone for two to three hours and just talk. With several emails back and forth, at a certain point I got to thinking, "Why don't I ask Jim to write the introduction to the book?" I approached him and he kindly and graciously did it with alacrity and I think he did a superb job.
Guillén: That's too cool. Your biography has a narrative traction that propels it forward like a true pageturner. It's almost as if you've adopted the persona of the narrator of a pulp crime novel or a voiceover in a film noir classic. For example, you describe the working relationship between Louis B. Mayer and Nick Schenck as being "as convivial as two cats stuffed in a pillowcase being dragged behind a pickup truck." And you write about William Talman's ominous on-screen persona as possessing "the visual cast of a malevolent space alien who happened to wander into a film noir." These descriptions are visceral! How did you decide which voice to use in talking about the life of Charles McGraw?
Rode: To be honest with you, that's an interesting observation you've made. I didn't really think about it too much except that it was my story to tell and I wanted to tell it and I wanted it to be entertaining as well as informative. It ended up having some brevity, y'know. It's not a long book. But that was just my style of writing. I wanted to write to inform, to tell a story that I wanted to share with people that I thought was very interesting. It was a narrative biography so some of the comments I made were part of telling the story. That was just the way I wrote the book.
Guillén: That being said, your storytelling is thoroughly engaging, Alan, and I applaud you for that. I hope that you'll be the voiceover when this gets turned into a documentary?
Rode: [Laughs.] They haven't been beating my door down on that one! But, if they do knock on my door, I'll definitely open it.
Guillén: There you go. I'm presuming you'll be hosting the McGraw double-bill—Reign of Terror and Border Incident—at this year's Noir City?
Rode: That's correct. I'll be doing a booksigning at 6:00 on Wednesday, January 30, at the M Is For Mystery table in the Castro Theatre mezzanine. Then I'll be introducing and talking a little bit about those two movies, which I'm very excited about because I think they're two very good films.
Guillén: As a Chicano, Border Incident is a key representative of The Bronze Screen and one of my favorites. I'm delighted to get to see it on a big screen. I also understand McGraw is in another film on the Noir City 6 program, The Story of Molly X?
Rode: That's correct. The Story of Molly X is a film, interestingly enough, that I on the Film Noir Foundation—working with Eddie Muller and Anita Monga—really wanted to find because there's only a horrible 16mm videotape copy floating around that's virtually unwatchable. The Foundation has forged some truly great relationships with people at the studios and at Universal they found a print and struck a print for us gratis! I don't think The Story of Molly X has been seen on the big screen since its release in 1949. This is really something I'm looking forward to in seeing this print. McGraw's particular part in the movie is not very large at all. He's in the movie as the cop. I did get to go through the production files for this movie at USC and found out some interesting things about how the cast members changed and how Crane Wilbur—who was the producer-director of this movie—was under extreme budget pressure. Originally, McGraw's part was going to be played by Jeff Chandler. They had built it up quite a bit; but, Chandler either opted out or they removed him because they couldn't pay his salary. They put McGraw in and he finished the part in three days. While he's there and he does a good job, it's not what I would call a leading role.
Guillén: More a budget-saving strategy?
Rode: That's exactly right. When you look through the records of these old movies and you really dig into this thing, these guys had to bring their movies in under budget. The directors and the producers who couldn't bring their films on schedule and under budget didn't last very long.
Guillén: Speaking of that—and on somewhat of a tangent—I recently hosted a "blogathon" on Val Lewton's films who was possibly one of the main exemplars of that low-budget strategy. Can you speak to the "noirish" elements in the films of Val Lewton? I know he's not really considered film noir but there are noirish elements there?
Rode: Oh yeah. In my book I talk about RKO as the "Capital of Noir" and certainly Val Lewton played a large role in that. Lewton's main contribution to a style very similar to noir—or let's just say a dark style—was his ability due to his creativity and also the budget constraints of the hidden hand suggestion of terror and so on and so forth. In Cat People when Jane Randolph is in the pool, you never see the black panther; it's all suggested. In The Leopard Man, the blood running underneath the door [suggests] the girl is killed. We all remember being scared by those movies or startled at certain [moments]. Lewton and Jacques Tourneur discovered that the power of suggestion is a lot more terrifying than special effects shoved in your face on the screen. Lewton was the greatest exponent of the power of terror via suggestion.
Guillén: Well, Alan, thank you for your time.
Rode: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I'm really glad that you liked the book and I look forward to seeing you at Noir City this weekend!
Cross-published on The Evening Class.