T-Men was the first pairing of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. Every shot of this film is a masterpiece of lighting, composition, focus, and staging. One could publish an expensive art book merely presenting each shot in the film printed on its own glossy page. Alton’s work on T-Men reminds us all again of why Martin Scorsese always refers to his life’s work as “pictures.”
John Alton changed the way films in America looked, eschewing overly bright, presentational lighting for an aesthetic that was darker and more realistic. On the commentary track, author Alan K. Rode tells the story of John Alton’s first order to his crew whenever they worked in a new studio. Alton would point to the myriad lights that had been carefully and painstakingly hung from the ceiling and instruct his men to “take those all down.” Alton preferred smaller lighting instruments on stands. These could be moved and adjusted much more quickly, and one of the reasons Alton became so sought after in Hollywood is that he worked so damn fast.
The Plot In Brief: Treasury agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genero (Alfred Ryder) vow to break a Los Angeles counterfeiting ring by going undercover as mobsters. They assume new identities as Vannie Harrigan and Tony Galvani, respectively. They seek employment with a minor gangster running a counterfeit liquor tax stamp scam, claiming to be members of Detroit’s famous river gang. They begin by tailing “The Schemer” (Wallace Ford) and then work their way up the criminal ladder in order to get to the big cheese of L.A. counterfeiters.
Because T-Men was loosely based on real federal counterfeiting cases and because its preface and narration owe so much to documentary, audiences believed they were watching the truth. I was unfamiliar with the entire leading cast, which actually made it easier to believe what I was seeing and lose myself in the story. Occasionally, a bit player would show up that I recognized, but that was just window dressing on a very realistic narrative that really pulled me in. The performances here merit a mention. I was originally cool to Dennis O’Keefe in the lead, but his performance grew on me and I finished the film impressed. He is the glue the narrative needs to hold the story together. Recalling the film later, I counted how many times O’Keefe is roughed up and beaten in this film; it’s impressive. He is like Indiana Jones, always up for another round—or, to borrow a slogan from a previous generation, a Timex watch: O’Keefe takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.
T-Men was a massive hit upon release, buoyed by a great ad campaign, fantastic word of mouth, and a laudatory five-page spread in Life magazine. One of the reasons for its success might lie in the film’s structure, which starts as a dry documentary (real-life Treasury Chief Elmer Lincoln Irey’s introduction is stultifying) then morphs into a standard policier with serious and stentorian narration, but then gradually becomes darker and much more brutal—in short, more of a film noir. This film would make a good “Baby’s First Film Noir” as it leads its audiences from one (safe) genre, through another, and then finally into a (dangerous) third. First someone gets beat up, then we have a torture sequence featuring the bad guys doing something unspeakable off camera, then we are in a Turkish bath wondering how the hell we got there, immersed in the noir’s trademark cynicism and fatalistic despair.
This seems to be the inaugural release from a new video label, Classic Flix, which started out as an online disc retailer. Someone at Classic Flix must have a major jones for film noir, and this release of T-Men is a cause for celebration. Some have quibbled at Classic Flix’s pricing, which is a little higher than most catalog Blu-rays, but when you see that what they are presenting is in the same league as Criterion and Arrow titles, I think the extra few dollars are well spent. The transfer is flawless, the extras are thoughtful and well done, and I eagerly await the company’s next batch of titles. Classic Flix is releasing He Walked By Night (co-directed by Mann with cinematography by John Alton) on November 7th and Mann and Alton’s 1948 follow-up to T-Men, Raw Deal, on December 14th. Both releases will feature audio commentaries and additional featurettes. Classic Flix seems to be wishing us all a Merry Film-mass and a Happy Noir Year.
(This is one of those rare films where you could turn the damn sound off, groove to the visuals, and still get your money’s worth.)
(Some fine suspense, mostly involving grisly off-screen violence. Yuck.)
(Boy, do people get beat up in this movie-- and in a realistic way, not a “movie way.”)