Anthony Mann, 1947
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder
“These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard. “
Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro agree to become undercover agents while the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating a major counterfeiting ring that has a network across of much of the western U.S. In Detroit, they penetrate a branch of the Italian mob and make reputations from themselves. They meet “The Schemer,” a nervous man crucial to the flow of operations, though unfortunately he catches on that Genaro is not all that he seems to be. As the mob begins to close in on the pair, O’Brien gets close to the top of the organization when he pretends to be a fellow counterfeiter.
Director Anthony Mann kicked off his career with this gritty, docu-noir that rises far above the average police procedural. Mann would go on to direct Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), and a number of westerns with James Stewart, including Winchester ’73 (1950), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Furies (1950), as well as period epics El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and spy-thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968). This early effort is a collaboration with his regular cinematographer John Alton, responsible for the dark, foreboding, and documentary-style visuals.
Alton captures numerous Detroit and California locations, oppressive urban landscapes with plenty of grit and grime. Much of the film is set in sleazy hotel rooms, forbidding docks, and half-lit offices, as O’Brien and Genaro’s descent into the underworld becomes both a visual and moral journey. This is far more brutal than a run of the mill police procedural and I suspect it is one of the first films to openly blur the lines between gangsters and officers of the law (though Kiss of Death, also from 1947, treads on similar ground). Genaro and O’Brien are responsible for a number of unsavory actions. Though they have difficulty remaining undercover for so long, it is disturbingly easy for them to think and act like criminals. Both the two agents and their supervisors lose sight of the line between justice and criminality in their desperate pursuit to catch the counterfeiters.
Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard Man, Raw Force) stars as the confusingly named Dennis O’Brien. He has a somewhat nondescript, easy to forget face, which was perfect for this role and he gave a solid performance. Alfred Ryder (True Grit, Escape to Witch Mountain) is equal to O’Keefe as his partner, Tony Genaro. Genaro is a bit more rounded out and humanized, because of an encounter with this wife (played by June Lockhart of Lassie). The two meet by accident in a crowded market and his wife’s friend insists that Genaro is her husband, though he is desperately trying to hide his identity. His wife catches on and – though her eyes fill with tears – she coldly pretends not to known him. This is the last the two will ever meet as Mann boldly has Genaro killed.
Another incredible scene – one that I’m convinced was lifted right into David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – involves the use of a disturbingly dark Turkish bath. Moxie (played with menace by Charles McGraw of The Birds) stalks his prey by waiting half-naked in the baths, ready to kill with only his bare hands. He eventually finds his prey and murders him in a terrifying scene where his victim’s death throes can only be seen through the port hole of the steam room door. In addition to McGraw, the film has a number of memorable villains and toughies. Wallace Ford (Harvey, Freaks, and Shadow of a Doubt) is excellent as a character known only as “The Schemer.” He leads Genaro to his doom, but is in turn targeted by Moxie. The leader of the counterfeiting ring surprisingly turns out to be a woman, singer Mary Meade, who is powerful and ruthless.
T-Men comes recommended. It is available on DVD and has much about it to enjoy. The voice over can be a bit much (or provide a lot of laughs), but this is a great introduction to Anthony Mann’s career as a noir stylist. I would have figured I was the last person on Earth who would be excited about a movie that follows around two Treasury Agents, but it’s impossible not to be enthralled by scenes such as the Turkish bath murder – or by a film willing, if not enthusiastic about killing off one of its two protagonists.