Found: a must-see Film noir in all its brutal glory, restored to a level of quality not seen in years. Anthony Mann and John Alton made their reputations with ninety minutes of chiaroscuro heaven — it’s one of the best-looking noirs ever. With extras produced by Alan K. Rode.
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / Special Edition / 92 min. / Street Date October 10, 2017 / 39.99
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, Charles McGraw, Jane Randolph, Art Smith, Herbert Heyes, Jack Overman, John Wengraf, June Lockhart, Keefe Brasselle, James Seay, Tito Vuolo, John Newland, Reed Hadley.
Cinematography: John Alton
Film Editor: Fred Allen
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Written by John C. Higgins, story Virginia Kellogg
Produced by Aubrey Schenck, Edward Small
Directed by Anthony Mann
Wow — I’ve seen T-Men many times, but never like this. It’s always listed as a significant success, a trend-starter, a career-launcher, but only now can we really see why. At films school we read about Eagle-Lion’s massive hit of 1947-48 but couldn’t find a viewing copy, along with other noirs (Brute Force, Baby Face Nelson) that at the time were M.I.A.. T-Men did show up later, but only in terrible dupes that gave no indication of the quality of its cinematography. Even the best copies shown lately on TCM have not been very attractive.
The small outfit ClassicFlix is making a big dent in the Blu-ray boutique biz with its high quality editions of films we’re not used to seeing looking so good: The Noose Hangs High, You Only Live Once, Crime of Passion. T-Men stands out because it was known for an extreme visual style, that until now we had to take partly on faith.
T-Men is choice film noir and a genuine artistic statement. It retains the expressionist look of the initial style. But the strong images are imposed on a story that asks to be taken as a just-the-facts procedural documentary about the workings of the Treasury Department. Two dedicated agents’ undercover mission is accompanied by stern patriotic music and impossibly stentorian Reed Hadley narration that plays down the fictional aspect. Yet what we see is a subjective nightmare.
Treasury Agents O’Brien and Genaro (Dennis O’Keefe & Alfred Ryder) spend months establishing identities as mid-western hoods before arriving in Los Angeles to put paid to a well-organized counterfeiting ring. Their entry is through The Schemer (Wallace Ford), a hood already on bad terms with his thug associates. They must work under the constant surveillance of the gang’s strong-arm man Brownie (Jack Overman) and the sadistic Moxie (Charles McGraw). The agents use various tricks to communicate with their superiors; the idea is that Dennis will identify the ringleaders under the guise of providing them with a perfect printing plate. Contact is made but the ruse isn’t perfect. Dennis and Genaro have already seen what happens to ordinary associates that betray the mob. The tension rises as their false identities begin to unravel.
T-Men starts as a straight crime story about heroic lawmen busting a band of scurvy crooks. It could serve as an episode of the short subject series Crime Doesn’t Pay. There’s little or no romantic element, which does distinguish the show from a main thread of early noir. Nobody is acting out of sexual obsession and there’s no ambiguity about guilt and innocence. We have good T-Men facing off against bad criminals. The difference is in the intensity of the struggle. The agents’ deception is devoid of Raffles– like escapist fun. Dennis doesn’t get to play footsie with a crook’s girlfriend, and the bad guys aren’t colorful rascals undone by foolish weaknesses.
Anthony Mann had plenty of directing experience, but producer Edward Small offered Mann the opportunity to make a movie ‘his’ way, with few compromises to mainstream sentimentality. John C. Higgins’ dialogue is terse but not flamboyantly hardboiled; and so businesslike that the movie feels like a documentary despite most every scene being soaked in dramatic visuals.
Knowing that postwar audiences were tired of fakery, Mann lays on the violent realism. Beatings are frequent, and have consequences. Other moments of violent death are given a sadistic treatment, as when a crook is scalded to death in a steam bath while his executioner looks on. Some of the crooks are functioning psychotics, while others are just weak enough to give Dennis and Genaro opportunities to influence them.
Audiences were most impressed by T-Men’s willingness to play for keeps. There’s no glory in the kinds of jeopardy the T-Men must face. Previous agents have died awful, near-anonymous deaths. In the film’s most traumatic scene, the Treasury agents must play their impersonation out to the bitter end. The scene so goes against the self-preservation instinct that it’s genuinely disturbing.
So what’s the big deal about this magic John Alton noir lighting? Alton was an artiste and theorist who wrote an influential book about cinematography. It’s likely that his career got off to a slow start because he wasn’t a studio man, but a talent who learned his craft in South America. Hollywood camera departments didn’t like genius lone wolves, and staff producers trying to keep their jobs didn’t want their dailies to look different than anybody else’s. Alton didn’t flat-light a set and then use individual lights to set off the actors. He started every shot with a visual design and no light, and added only what was needed to make the desired visual statement. The hideouts and secret meeting places in T-Men are rooms with perhaps only a single light source, so we often can barely see the walls behind the actors. The focus is always deep. Added depth is obtained through graphic means, by contrasting figures in full light against other characters that are almost silhouettes.
These techniques weren’t new but Mann integrated Alton’s visuals into his directing style. Their respective functions blend together, building scenes with extreme angles that nevertheless carry the drama well. The camera angles are unusual, but never artsy or pretentious. Low angles accentuate the characters’ insecurity, and sometimes reveal items hidden in the frame. Wide shots of streets and alleys turn the urban night into a maze of light and darkness. Instead of five cuts showing someone on the move, a single shot will carry that person from the distance, through several areas of light, all the way to a close shot. It’s economical for production resources and artful as well.
Although the images are striking, Alton rarely went in for unmotivated ‘special effect’ lighting. Even the perfunctory exposition scenes in broad daylight are given special attention. Unlike many a P.R.C. or Monogram cheapie, scenes take place in real-looking rooms with windows. The light comes from where it should. Alton goes easy on the cliché Venetian blind effects, the ones that in other movies too often cue saxophone solos. Yet the settings are always important: T-Men move in a very real, very dangerous environment.
Visual dynamics is the key. Action might insert an unusually wide angle, as when a chase on the deck of a steamship looks like a maze of pipes and rails. When Mann wants to get violent it’s always up close, personal and physical. These guys struggle, strain and sweat — the professional ‘cool’ is a pose soon dropped by lawman and killer alike.
This is a man’s movie; even the ‘class photo’ of the shooting crew is all male. The director makes one of the villains a woman (Jane Randolph) much like Signe Hasso’s Nazi ringleader in the obvious inspiration The House on 92nd Street from a couple of years before. The other woman is little more than a touching, tragic reminder of the demanding nature of undercover law enforcement. What happens between Genaro and his wife Mary (June Lockhart) runs counter to the prevailing “Honey I’m home” image of police home life, so idealized in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City. In a friendly crafts booth at Farmer’s Market, an accidental betrayal plays out like a twisted Bible story. Does Mary ‘deny’ her husband three times, or just two? Hollywood normally acted as a cheerleader for enlistment in law enforcement but T-Men makes police work a descent into an existential nightmare. When the smoke clears, the movie doesn’t dare solicit Mary’s likely opinion of the successful mission — it wouldn’t go well with the patriotic music.
Anthony Mann’s casting choices make a big difference. T-Men is a parade of convincingly unsavory character actors, from the broken-nosed Jack Overman to memorable ethnics like Tito Vuolo. Wallace Ford once again creates a fine portrait of a lowlife, while Charles McGraw’s jut-jawed thug reaches a high point in twisted sadism. He never shook that image, not entirely. Even McGraw’s later good-guy tough guys seemed dangerous, volatile.
We’re told that T-Men was a surprise hit, and when a lowercase studio had a hit in the late ’40s, it was often good news for the talent responsible. Anthony Mann’s career got a huge boost, as did John Alton’s. Of the performers perhaps only Charles McGraw really benefitted all that much; perhaps the industry thought that the direction and lighting were doing the acting. It’s rumored that ClassicFlix will soon announce the Mann-Alton-Small-Eagle Lion-Dennis O’Keefe follow-up feature Raw Deal, a different but equally effective noir classic.
ClassicFlix’s Special Edition Blu-ray of T-Men is a revelation. I scoured the packaging for a hint of the source material for this marvelous restoration and could find none. That doesn’t matter, for the scan on view is obviously from an element very close to the original negative. It looks so good that I was hard pressed to detect signs of digital cleanup. It’s as if somebody obtained the negative through a time machine.
T-Men was always visually striking no matter how miserable was the copy on view. We now see not just the graphic contrasts in John Alton’s images, but also the finer details. The mostly-deep focus shots are arresting in HD, and we can see into dark areas that before were crude silhouettes. A foreground face outside the key light has just enough light on it to register some detail. If you are into noir graphics, or graphic novel art, this disc is a feast. Note: None of the images on this page look as good as does the Blu-ray.
The audio is also restored and on the Blu-ray is presented uncompressed.
ClassicFlix backs up its feature with a fine brace of extras executive produced by noir culture kingpin Alan K. Rode. The interview featurettes are first-rate. One piece gathers a lineup of noir experts to score observations about the film, and a second gives us insights into director Mann from his daughter, Nina. A good essay by Max Alvarez is the main feature of a handsomely produced insert booklet.
Since I’ve seen the film often, I went right for Alan K. Rode’s commentary track. Film Noir Foundation founding member Rode has been living and breathing noir for at least a quarter of a century, and knows where all the bodies are buried. He has the inside story on the government case portrayed in the movie. When he cites other films by actors or filmmakers it’s never just a list, but a reference of specific significance. Rode explains what made the creative partnership between Anthony Mann and John Alton so special — the two men were so close in temperament and taste that the collaboration meshed on an intuitive level. Mann liked what John Alton did so there were few artistic disputes. Alton’s ability to act independently freed up Anthony Mann to give more attention to the actors.
The track is an excellent listen. Alan is amused by the fact that T-Men was a Christmas release for 1947, as it can’t have come off as something for a family outing. He has the lowdown on all of the film’s L.A. locations, from Union Station to the Farmer’s Market in the Fairfax district. That little kiosk in the middle of the Market’s parking lot has a strong personal hook for me because I distinctly remember it from age four or five, when my parents came down from Edward AFB, bussed in on a day-trip — in that same kiosk was a dinosaur toy that I wanted very badly. We were there to have dinner and see a roller derby. I know that Gilroy Field was nearby, but was there a roller derby rink as well? Perhaps in the nearby Pan-Pacific Auditorium? I was impressed by the indoor roller derby track, but fell asleep and remember nothing else — and likely made up the details of my memory in dreams.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by biographer and producer Alan K. Rode. Featurettes: Into the Darkness: Mann, Alton and T-Men with cinematographer Richard Crudo, critic Todd McCarthy, writer Julie Kirgo, Courtney Joyner and Alan K. Rode; A Director’s Daughter: Nina Mann Remembers interview. Plus an illustrated 24 page booklet with an essay by Max Alvarez.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep caseReviewed: October 11, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson