A noir docudrama that’s long on suspense and a brilliant exercise in taut direction and evocative cinematography, Anthony Mann’s T-Men is a film that deserves to be far better known.
The Production: 4.5/5
A noir docudrama that’s long on suspense and a brilliant exercise in taut direction and evocative cinematography, Anthony Mann’s T-Men is a film that deserves to be far better known. Combining aspects of the police procedural with an inside look on how treasury agents work to bring down counterfeiters, T-Men catches one’s attention early on and never lets go. The excellent, unshowy performances likewise give the movie a power and grace that bigger studio productions with all-star casts of the era could only envy.
Getting word that counterfeiters out of Los Angeles possessed a quantity of high-quality paper to make superb phony money, the Treasury Department conscripts two of its lesser known agents to head the undercover operation: Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) will masquerade as Vannie Harrigan and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) will be Tony Galvani, both playing young, hungry con men willing to start at the bottom of the mob operation in Detroit before transferring to the big time in Los Angeles. With a great pair of counterfeit engraving plates, O’Brien finally gets introduced to the counterfeit syndicate through the weasel-like connections of The Schemer (Wallace Ford), but the duo must watch their every step since the mob is not reckless nor naïve when it comes to dealing with shady characters, and the slightest slip by either O’Brien or Galvani could spell their doom and the end of the operation.
The screenplay by John C. Higgins takes its time delivering the exposition necessary to help audiences understand the meticulous preparation necessary for the treasury agents (“T-Men” of the title) to be able to succeed in fooling experienced gangsters who must always be on the lookout for police and governmental operatives. The stentorian narration by Reed Hadley takes us step-by-step through the agents’ motivations, preparations, and reactions to their daily experiences which shape their next moves while never merely describing on-screen activity, and it certainly gives an authentic feel to the storytelling of this notorious “Shanghai Paper Case.” Then, the superbly thoughtful and meticulous direction of Anthony Mann with its fascinating John Alton camera placement choices (many shots taken from low angles with bodies hurling toward the camera or focusing on multiple figures sometimes in both foreground and background in the same shot and occasionally shocking us with murders from behind where the shooter is blocked by the body of his soon-to-be victim) brings us home with such a variety of set-ups that the movie is continually inventive both visually (several montages work beautifully including one in a succession of steam baths which has a great payoff later in the movie) and aurally (the sound recording earned an Oscar nomination). The tension becomes tauter and more excruciating as the movie runs as our two protagonists run into unanticipated problems trying to keep their true identities a secret while inching closer and ever closer to learning the identity of Mr. Big.
Known for light comedies and musicals, Dennis O’Keefe emerges here as a more than competent tough leading man. There is a fairly ridiculous climactic showdown with tough cookie Moxie played with great sneering relish by Charles McGraw where O’Keefe’s “Harrigan” walks straight into a hail of bullets without even thinking of cover for himself, but elsewhere in the film, he’s a thinking man’s agent weighing his decisions before taking action. Alfred Ryder has less to do as the other half of the undercover team, but he has a memorable moment late in the film when he’s surprisingly confronted on the street by his wife (fresh-faced June Lockhart) but has to deny his true identity to keep up his subterfuge. Wallace Ford makes a memorably sleazy impression as The Schemer, once a big shot with the mob and now reduced to worrying about his place on the team on a daily basis. Art Smith is the low-key head of the treasury investigative team with Jim Bannon as a helpful fellow agent. Also in small but key roles in the movie are familiar faces like Tito Vuolo as the manager of a seedy hotel and John Newland as a lab technician. Aside from June Lockhart, the only other women’s roles of substance are Jane Randolph as Diana Simpson, executive assistant to Mr. Big (who winds up being played by Oscar Gaffney), and Mary Meade as a nightclub photographer who inadvertently provides the first real lead O’Brien gets in Los Angeles to uncovering the identity of the counterfeit gang.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 has been faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Would that all black and white noirs from the 1940s were blessed with such pristine and spectacular transfers! The grayscale is so extraordinary that words can’t really do it justice, but the blacks are really deep, and details in the shadows will test the very best televisions and projectors with reproducing all of the detail that is present. Contrast has been majestically rendered in this transfer while the images are sparkling clean and free from age-related artifacts of all kinds. The movie has been divided into 27 chapters.
The PCM 2.0 mono sound (2.3 Mbps) is remarkably crisp and responsive, expertly blending the well-recorded dialogue and narration, the driving Paul Sawtell background score, and the atmospheric effects together into a very impressive track. There are no problems with age-related audio artifacts like hiss, crackle, thumps, and flutter.
Special Features: 4/5
Audio Commentary: film historian Alan K. Rode provides a very informative and entertaining commentary on the film providing background information on the stars and supporting players and pointing out memorable aspects of the direction, cinematography, writing, and performances.
Into the Darkness: Mann, Alton and T-Men (10:38, HD): the film’s claims to greatness are expounded by a number of film historians and industry professionals, among them cinematographer Richard Crudo, critic Todd McCarthy, historian Julie Kirgo, director Courtney Joyner, and biographer Alan K. Rode.
A Director’s Daughter: Nina Mann Remembers (9:18, HD): director Anthony Mann’s daughter Nina offers insight into her father’s passions and drives.
Twenty-Four Page Booklet: contains a wealth of stills and posters, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Max Alvarez’s outstanding essay on the movie’s production and subsequent history.
One of the outstanding noir docudramas of the 1940s, T-Men is a taut and tense thriller worthy of multiple views. The Classic Flix special edition Blu-ray boasts a superlative audio and video transfer of the movie and offers an abundance of bonus material that makes it a highly recommended addition to your video collection.