3.13.2015

Friday Night Film Noir: T-Men (1947)


Conceptually, tonight's entry doesn't have much in common with other film noirs. The plot - two US Treasury agents infiltrate a counterfeit ring and meticulously work their way towards the top - is pretty straightforward cops-and-robbers terrain. But as mentioned here, "if someone asked me to choose one example of what film noir looked like, I would likely sit them down and show them T-Men. Aesthetically it’s simply astonishing."

THE CAST

Alfred Ryder (Robert Crater from "The Man Trap") and Dennis O'Keefe play the undercover Treasury Agents, Genaro and O'Brien.
Both give great performances, O'Keefe - the main character - especially. Ryder is the married one of the pair - when we first meet him, he unfolds a picture of his wife and puts it on the table in front of him as he writes her a letter - and O'Brien is a bachelor but married to his job.

He throws himself into both the investigation -
and buries himself in his undercover persona: a flashy gangster type.
Like all "undercover agent" stories, we see him pay the price for committing to the role successfully.
Genaro's not so lucky...
Charles McGraw, arguably at his grittiest, as the muscle, "Moxie."
Wallace Ford plays the bad guy we spend the most time with ("The Schemer") but it's McGraw who steals the show. Not counting Jane Randolph as the Number Two in the counterfeit ring:


Mary Meade plays the picture-lady at Club Trinidad through whom Agent O'Brien makes contact with the California side of the counterfeit ring. 


THE STORY

T-Men opens with the real life Elmer Lincoln Irey (one of the Treasury Agents who brought down Al Capone) telling us that what we're about to see is a composite of real events. 

"These are the 6 fingers of the Treasury Department's fist, and that fist hits fair - but hard."

Six fingers?
From there, an Untouchables/ Dragnet-style narration moves the criminal investigation along, while O'Brien and Genaro get to know each other and slowly unravel the mystery.

This scene where they meet is interesting as they go through an elaborate ritual of changing into their gangster duds.
"Name's Genaro." "Nice to know you, see?"

JOHN ALTON 

As mentioned above, the real star of the show is the cinematography. Every trick in the book is used to keep your eye glued to the screen. 

The technique calls attention to itself but is used so seamlessly that you barely notice how tricky some of the compositions are.
The bath scenes montage is probably the film's most-often cited visual. Understandably so. It was recreated pretty well in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978.)
Reflective surfaces are also used to great effect.
Just an amazing-looking film.

One thing I wasn't able to screencap effectively was the pulsing lights of the neon signs outside the windows of some scenes. This became a visual cliche of the genre, but when you see the technique employed in T-Men, it's easy to understand how and why that was the case. 


Despite the red-white-and-blue swagger of the narration and the bookend Elmer Irey stuff, T-Men conveys a palpable unease - is all of this really worth it? The narration insists it is; this is the admittedly-high price we pay for a free society. Free = "real" money, though, i.e. fiat currency. America off the gold standard - something very much still in the air at the time (even after World War 2. Perhaps even especially.) Interestingly, the Treasury experts at one point - discussing the high quality of the counterfeiters' contraband - remind the audience that "China invented paper." But not paper currency. 

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9 comments:

  1. A very sweet-lookin' flick indeed.

    Every time I read one these reviews, it makes me realize that my unfamiliarity with film noir is even worse than I'd imagined. Here, again, a movie that sounds great, but I've never even heard of it!

    It bums me out to think that there are so many worthy movies in the world which may permanently escape my attention. I should write a screenplay about a nerd who invents a means of transplanting his brain into a robot body, but just so he can spend the new few thousand years catching up on all the movies he's never seen. (The twist end: he STILL can't get caught up.)

    Slightly more seriously, it also bums me out to think that perfectly worthy movies like this one slide into obscurity all the time. Gather 100,000 Americans into a room, conduct a poll, and how many do you suppose will have seen "T-Men"? Two? Three? I work with teenagers who don't know who Tom Cruise is; what chance do the "T-Men" of the world have?

    Which is why series of posts like this one are a great service. Keep 'em comin'!

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    1. Thanks! I've resigned myself to this being one of the more unpopular/ least-read series of posts here at the Omnibus, due to what you describe. But that's okay - it's specialized info, I guess, and those who like it will find it. So many folks just have no curiosity about film history and the medium's evolution/ the genres of yesteryear. Westerns, musicals, film noirs, silent films - hell, I love silent films, and I've thought about doing a series about THOSE, and still might who knows. Lack of familiarity I can understand - there's only so much time in the day. And like you say, even if you had a robot/clone working overtime to catch yourself up, the task would be still be incomplete. But lack of curiosity? To me, this is what separates a film buff from a civilian. (Or, a poseur!)

      Which all sounds terribly elitist of me, but so be it. If you close your mind to the past, your thoughts on the present are simply of lesser interest to me.

      Anyway, I'm very happy to hear that despite not having seen these, you're still enjoying them. That's certainly what I'm aiming for.

      John Alton was the man - I really want to own everything he ever shot. He just understood light and shadow so damn well.

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  2. "Which all sounds terribly elitist of me, but so be it. If you close your mind to the past, your thoughts on the present are simply of lesser interest to me."

    I don't think it's elitist at all. I think it's just a matter of having a clue what you're talking about. Granted, a lot of people find THAT to be elitist, but I think conversing with those people is mostly a lost cause; so why bother?

    I like your silent-film idea. I'd happily read that.

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    1. p.s. Who the hell doesn't know who Tom Cruise is? Sheesh. That reminds me of meeting these kids who had no idea who Elvis or The Beatles were, and when I told them, they said they weren't into music of "my generation."

      I left it at that, but wow. You should mess with their heads and tell them Tom Cruise was a member of the Rat Pack or something.

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    2. The conversation went something like this:

      Me: "You don't know who Tom Cruise is?!?"

      Them: "Name a movie he's in."

      Me: "No. He's Tom Cruise, you should just know this."

      But, truth be told, we're talking about 19-year-olds. Tom Cruise hasn't done anything that would be particularly relevant to their lives, so I sort of get it. Still, not at least having HEARD of him seems odd, but it's happened multiple times, so it's a real thing.

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    3. Some further thoughts on the charge of elitism.

      To dispel any thoughts that informed is the new abnormal, read "The Dumbest Generation" by Mark Baurlein.

      It's a very disheartening picture in terms any kind of "cultural literacy" in this country. So no, I doubt there's any kind of elitism involved. Or if there is, then it means anybody who has a worldly knowledge that extends past Facebook and al things Kardashian (good grief, spellcheck actually "recognized" that word) is automatically elitist.

      I'd really not like to see that happen.

      ChrisC

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    4. Thanks, Chris - sounds like a book I need to read, definitely.

      Speaking of the Kardashians, I was just chuckling at one of the People magazines in the breakroom here at work, which had a caption to some Kardashian pic with "She and her sisters will stop at NOTHING in their INSANE DESIRE to BREAK THE INTERNET!"

      That is some seriously fine caption-writing, there. I'd watch a Kardashian documentary if it was narrated like that, preferably with the narrator from The Untouchables reading it. (or even the guy who narrates "T-Men.")

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  3. Those are definitely some nice, moody screencaps. T-Men is one of those flicks that gets referenced a lot, but that I rarely see on TV. I don't think I've seen the entire thing, so I need to remedy that via Amazon. Thanks for the reminder.

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