Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bob le flambeur (1956)

The Illegal Life in Bob le flambeur

“I was born with an ace in my palm.”

Bob le flambeur (aka Bob the Gambler, Fever Heat) is a film made early in the career of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. While it was not a hit when it was released, the film gained a following among filmmakers for its world-weary portrayal of life, its street scenes, and also for its unforgettable protagonist, Bob---played with low-key elegance by Roger Duchesne. Made over a two-year period, Melville pieced together the film when he had enough money to cover the expenses generated by a few days of filmmaking. Today, Bob le flambeur (loosely translated to Bob the High-Roller) remains one of the memorable French noir films from the classic period. Like Max, the protagonist in Touchez pas au grisbi, Bob is essentially a loner surrounded with a loyal coterie, whereas Max is invulnerable, Bob has a fatal flaw. And as the title suggests---Bob’s Achilles’ heel is his gambling addiction. From cards and dice to harness racing, if he can bet or play the odds, he does.

The film begins with street life as dawn arrives in the notorious red-light district of Pigalle in Paris. Famous for its nightlife, it’s the refuge of pimps, prostitutes, criminals, and those who live on the margins of society. A cleaner walks by on her way to work, street sweepers wash the streets, and a young girl appears, sauntering by men who ogle and stare. According to the voice-over narration, this young girl has “bloomed early for her age,” and although built like Venus, the girl, named Anne (Isabelle Corey was 16 when filming began) still has the dewy face of a teenager. While Anne strolls aimlessly through the streets, an American sailor lures her onto the back of his motorcycle and rides off with his new prize. This casual, easy pick-up is observed by Bob as he leaves an all-night dice game.

While Bob is supposedly on the way back to his apartment to sleep, he detours to hit a poker game. A police car stops to give Bob a ride. At this point, it’s clear that everyone in Pigalle---the club hostesses, the club owners and even the cops know and respect Bob. In fact, from bar owner Yvonne (Simone Paris) to police Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), everyone seems to owe Bob a favor. Ledru tells the tale of how Bob once saved his life, but even now, years later, Ledru isn’t sure of Bob’s motives when he intervened against an armed attacker. It’s clear that Ledru has mulled over the murkiness of Bob’s motives, and he insists that Bob has ‘learnt his lesson’ and that “age has wised him up” after serving prison time for a bank job twenty years before.

While almost everyone in Bob’s circle admires and respects him, he makes a fatal enemy early on in the film when he refuses to lend money to a brutal pimp named Marc (Gerard Buhr). After beating his woman so badly that she ends up in hospital, Marc hits Bob for a loan, but when Bob learns the reason Marc has to leave town, he refuses to hand over cash stating “I like to help guys in trouble but not your kind.”

As it happens, Marc doesn’t leave Pigalle, and Bob sees him the very next evening sniffing around Anne in a nightclub. Bob has already seen a sailor pick up Anne, so he knows she is a prostitute, and when she enters the club with the predatory Marc, he realizes that the pimp is looking to replace his hospitalized hooker. Taking Anne under his wing, he fends off Marc, feeds Anne and gives her money warning her “don’t you know sidewalk Romeos are dangerous?” Used to male attention, Anne thinks Bob is interested in her, but that notion is soon dismissed. Meanwhile Bob’s young accomplice Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), who juggles several women at once, thinks Anne is the woman of his dreams and begins an aggressive flirtation. Flagrantly staring at her chest he remarks, “I thought dolls stacked like you all had sugar daddies.”

Throughout the course of Bob’s life, he’s had good luck and bad luck. At one point, his luck has been good enough put up the cash for Yvonne’s bar, but as the film develops, Bob is on a losing streak. After a day spent gambling at the harness-racing track, Bob and his pal, Roger (Andre Garet) end up at a swanky casino in the resort town of Deauville. When Bob’s luck runs out, and he’s down to his last few francs, he learns that the casino recently had a cool 800 million francs in the safe, so Bob decides to formulate plans for a robbery. To him the heist represents not just a score---but also a high stakes gamble, which will pay lucratively if he can pull off all the details.

Bob’s world is generally male dominated, and he seems unfazed by female perfection. Suave enough to appear to be a ladies’ man, his obsession and his sole desire is Lady Luck, so much so that he keeps a slot machine in his closet to satiate sudden urges and impulses. With the film’s emphasis on the friendships between males, it makes perfect sense that the female roles in the film remain peripheral. At the same time, however, two women play crucial roles in the events that unfold. Anne assumes the role of a femme fatale of sorts in the indiscreet moments that take place between her sheets. Ambitious and amoral, she both receives and gives information, acting as a conduit through her sexual liaisons.

Bob le flambeur
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Suzanne (Colette Fleury) the nagging, grasping wife of croupier, Jean, proves---once again---that age-old noir wisdom of never confiding in a dame. The unusual element in Bob le flambeur, however, is that two women know about the casino heist and neither of them can keep their mouths shut.

While Bob le flambeur is generally cited as a homage to American gangsterism, some critics slam the film as a pale imitation of American heist films. And while a surface examination of Bob le flambeur might lead to the conclusion that the film is Melville’s attempt to capture the style of American noir, this analysis is shallow and unjustified. It’s true that Melville, whose real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach admired American culture---the name Melville, for instance, was a nom de guerre used by young Grumbach when he was a resistance fighter during WWII. Since Bob drives a Cadillac convertible, there’s certainly every reason to agree with the notion that Bob le flambeur is Melville’s tribute to American gangsterism. However before critics write off Bob le flambeur as either a tribute or an imitation of American cinema, attention should be paid to a crucial and yet subtle scene that appears relatively early in the film.

In this important scene, Paolo is with Roger and referring to Bob’s criminal career, he asks: “Was he really the first to copy American hoods?” Roger replies, “Actually it was the Yanks who copied the Bonnot Gang.” And he explains that Bob “was the first to use front wheel drive.” This slight, subtle reference to the early 20th century gang of French bank robbers is significant. Members of the so-called Bonnot Gang---also known as the “auto bandits”--were the first to use a get-away car to expedite a crime, and they also were the first to commit armed robbery with repeating rifles. Jules Bonnot, also known as Jules le Bourgeois, was the best-known member of the gang, and, before he drove the getaway car for bank robberies, he was employed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as his chauffeur.

But apart from the Bonnot Gang’s unique, daring, and innovative modus operandi that creates a pivotal point in the history of crime, the loosely formed gang operated on a philosophy that embraced Illegalism. The gang members were all working class men, anarchists who branched into Illegalism, making the decision that rather than slave in a system in which they could barely survive, a life of crime was viable and logical, and to them, the only alternative. Committed to live lives of illegality, they were therefore called Illegalists.

Similarly, Melville’s characters also opt for lives of illegalism. The decision to choose lives of criminality is a major theme in the film. Most of the people in Bob’s circle---while they live and eke out a living from the human vices---now lead more or less straight lives. But their criminal pasts remain. Bob was a bank robber, and so was Paolo’s father. Jean the croupier at the Deauville casino was a pimp, and while he’s now straight, he still exists on the fringes on society listening to his wife complain about wanting the finer things in life. The Scotsman has supposedly retired to a quiet life with his racehorses, but he can’t resist returning to an illegal life either. Marc the Pimp has some sort of connection with the rag trade, and he’s trying to rope Paolo in, but this seems to be more of a scam or a fencing operation than a viable career option. Bob offers Anne sanctuary with the implication that he’s “saving” her from becoming a “pavement princess.” But Anne doesn’t necessarily want to be ‘saved’ from a life of prostitution. With Bob’s help, Anne gets a job in a Pigalle nightclub where being semi-clad helps her sell flowers. Soon she rises to hostess, and before the film ends, it appears that she’s back as a prostitute by choice and despite intervention by Bob. Bob gambles for a living, and while he doubtless profits from tourists out for an evening’s thrill, when the film begins he does nothing illegal. But the film emphasizes the point that before the war, Bob and his group of pals were all criminals, and by the end of the film, many people in Bob’s circle have chosen to return to a life of criminality.

Melville’s subtle overlooked reference to the Bonnot Gang establishes that Bob le flambeur is not a simple French tribute to American gangsterism but rather Melville takes a gestalt approach to the phenomenon of crime through his cinematic analysis of Bob and his acquaintances. By referring to the Bonnot Gang as the inspiration for Bob, Melville offers a cinematic continuum of illegalism and those who choose to pursue living lives of illegality and crime.

The Criterion release is superb. Melville, operating on an almost zero budget, filmed some parts of the movie using a hand-held camera while he rode a bicycle. This low-tech, but infinitely practical approach appears throughout the film. There are no fancy camera angles, no flashbacks or flash-forwards---just a gritty, rich black and white realism that captures the gaudy glitter and tawdry glamour of nighttime Pigalle. The Criterion DVDincludes an interview with Daniel Cauchy (Paolo) and a radio interview with Melville.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Guilty (1947)

Posted by Steve-O

“Who'd want to look at his girl for the rest of his life and be reminded of murder?”

Don Miller, writing in "B" movies: An Informal Survey of the American Low-budget Film,notes that there were three classifications of movies during the 30s and 40s: “... the A, the B, and the programmers, sometimes alluded to as a 'nervous A' or 'gilt-edged B.' That hybrid would often play the top half of a double bill, have one or two fairly high-priced performers and, when a character walked into a room, the walls wouldn't shake as he shut the door; it looked reasonably opulent, but if a studio tried to palm it off as a big or A picture, you knew they were kidding.” Many classic noir could probably be called programmers - including Anthony Mann's Railroaded! and Raw Deal. The Guilty from Monogram Pictures, however, could never be mistaken for anything but a “B”. The walls don't shake when doors close but the sets sure do look flimsy. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Stylenotes, “ The Guilty... whose convoluted plot requires more than the low-budget treatment it is given here to be convincing.” However, (as fans of Edgar G. Ulmer and Val Lewton would remind you) sometimes with the “poverty-row” cheap sets and poor acting also came artistic freedom that was often stripped from “A” movies. I think The Guilty tells Cornell Woolrich's nightmarish story admirably. In fact, I think it succeeds because it's cheap.

The film begins with Mike Carr (Don Castle) walking down a dark street in a nameless dark city. The voice over tells how he's returning to the neighborhood after six months. When he arrives at his old favorite watering hole he tells the bartender he's meeting his old girlfriend there. Carr starts reminiscing about his old digs across the street. The film goes into a flashback. Mike is living in a cramped furnished apartment with his lieutenant from the war, a shell-shocked Battle of the Bulge vet Johnny Dixon (Wally Cassell). Mike, while taking care of his sick roommate, meets Johnny's girlfriend Linda Mitchell (former teenage actress Bonita Granville). Linda is the identical twin sister of Mike's girlfriend Estelle (also played by Granville). Things get complicated from there. Linda's dating Johnny but Estelle is trying to steal him away from her. At the same time, Estelle is going out with Mike who is viciously jealous.

The two twins go out one night both with the intentions of meeting Johnny. Mike sees Estelle walking down the dark street towards their apartment and he grabs her and insists that they have a beer together. Estelle goes with him but really wants to go to Johnny. Linda, meanwhile, is at Johnny's place. She's last seen in the movie collapsed on Johnny's bed sobbing. Later in the evening Mike, hours after Estelle ditches him, comes home to find Johnny alone. Johnny goes out to get some air and Mike goes to bed. Later, Mike is woken by a call from Linda's protective mother saying that Linda never made it home. Eventually, Estelle and her mother decide to call the police. The first place the police go is to Johnny and Mike's place.

Noir fans may remember another doppelgänger film noir about two sisters from a year earlier, The Dark Mirror. The similarities end there. That “A” picture starred Olivia de Havilland as the twins. With convincing trick photography and impressive acting decisions by the young movie star (de Havilland was only 30 in 1946), The Dark Mirror is an effective thriller. What makes me like the far cheaper and danker The Guilty? Well, first, the film isn't bogged down by distracting camera tricks when the twins are shown. While The Dark Mirror spends nearly the entire film trying to show the two de Havallands in the same shots, The Guilty only has one shot of the twins together. Not long after that, the good twin is killed gruesomely and the viewer is left with the bad (and far less loved) sister, Estelle. The final 2/3rds of the film is spent tracking down her killer while reminding the audience again and again that the bad sister lived.

Once the body of Linda is found in The Guilty, cop (and Castle's costar in I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes) Regis Toomey investigates the killing and its then the film begins to resemble the paranoid nightmares Cornell Woolrich is known for. After the killing all fingers point at the paranoid and sick Johnny who goes on the lam.

The film - with it's feelings of alienation and paranoia - are similar to other Woolrich adaptations including I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes, The Chase, Fall Guy, and the programmer Night Has a Thousand Eyes.

The mystery moves along at a quick pace eventually leading to an unexpectedly twisty ending. (I, for one, was convinced who the killer was only to find out that it was a red herring. I'm usually not tricked so easily.)

The cinematography, by director of photography Henry Sharp (Ministry of Fear), is dark and surprisingly interesting at times. There's many over-head shots and shadowy interiors. On scene at the local bar is shot from the perspective of inside a phone booth.

The cast is wooden but effective. Castle looks a lot like Clark Gable and acts like Tom Neal. Bonita Granville retired from acting after marrying the producer (and very rich oil man) Jack Wrather the year the film was released. Granville wasn't too successful as an adult actress but I thought she had an excellent film-noir look to her. While Castle acted like Tom Neal, she resembled Anne Savage. Toomey gives a reliable performance as a smarter-than-he-first-appears cop. Finally John Litel gives a creepy turn as a middle-aged man living in the twins home. Later in the film Litel's character Alex Tremholt confesses that he loved the girls as they grew up but was waiting until they turned into women before pursuing them. Creepy.

“Cornell Woolrich wrote about people caught in circumstances, arbitrary and destabilizing, that provoked fear, often unto terror, and the feeling of utter helplessness in the face of it.” writes Andrew Dickos in Street with No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir“No writer describes this interior world more vividly than he, and the psychology of Woolrich's characters, often facile in itself, is complicated by the subtle modulations of impending dread, of that sinking feeling that always anticipates doom.”

The Guilty - with it's many faults - captures the angst felt in Woolrich's words more than any “A” film at the time would dare.

The Guilty (1947)
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)


Editor's note: This time around, The Film Noir of the Week focuses on one of our favorite blondes Barbara Payton. John O'Dowd wrote the excellent biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, The Barbara Payton Story. O'Dowd's bio investigates Payton's complex and sometimes incredibly self-destructive personality. If you don't know much about her fascinating life, I would recommend you read it.

By John O'Dowd

As a result of the good notices she had received for her sexy performance in the 1949 crime film Trapped, by early 1950, fledgling actress (and burgeoning vamp) Barbara Payton began fielding job offers from several major film studios. Industry giant MGM screen tested her—along with starlets Lola Albright, Joi Lansing, Claudia Barrett and model Georgia Holt (the mother of Cher)—for the part of Angela, the provocative, 18-year-old mistress of crooked lawyer Louis Calhern in director John Huston’s masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle. Though she and the other actresses that were tested for the role eventually lost out to relative newcomer Marilyn Monroe (whose appearance in the film would catapult her to fame), an extremely self-confident Barbara moved on and was subsequently offered an interview with Warner Bros. Studios. Casting was taking place for the female lead in James Cagney’s latest crime drama, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and Barbara was again screen tested; this time, with several WB contract players. She later wrote that she found out about the movie’s casting call from “a madam plying her trade in Glendale”. Considering the caliber of people Barbara had been associating with since her arrival in Hollywood two years earlier, this assertion isn’t all that implausible.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye came one year after James Cagney’s classic turn as psychopathic gangster Cody Jarrett in WB’s box office smash, White Heat, and it was the studio’s hope that the film would repeat, or even exceed, its forerunner’s success. Though separated in direct succession by the lackluster Cagney/Doris Day musical West Point Story in 1950, the two crime films nonetheless signified a welcome return to form for the actor, who had spent the previous few years feeling immensely frustrated as he attempted to distance himself from his screen gangster persona.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
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By the early 1940s, Cagney was tired of playing generic hoodlum roles at WB and wanted to tackle more diverse projects. His great success playing legendary song and dance man George M. Cohan in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy had earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and with it came a desire to exert more control over his future cinematic efforts. In 1943, Cagney and his brother Bill (who had long served as Jimmy’s manager) severed ties with WB, claiming the company had done some creative bookkeeping with his profit participation. The duo then formed an independent production company they named William Cagney Productions. The company signed a distribution deal with United Artists to produce five films at a total budget of six million dollars.

Its actual output at UA, however, was a bit less prolific. As James Cagney historian (and George Raft biographer) Stone Wallace explains, “Between 1943 and 1948, William Cagney Productions made just three films: Johnny Come Lately, Blood on the Sun and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, and of the three, only one—Blood on the Sun—turned a modest profit.”

Although he was enjoying the artistic freedom he had long desired, Cagney was disappointed at the lack of box office his company’s films had generated. (The Time of Your Life, for instance, had lost over half a million dollars.) But then, according to Stone Wallace, “Jack L. Warner offered the Cagney brothers a sweetheart deal they couldn’t refuse. If Jimmy would return to Warners to appear as the mother-obsessed criminal Cody Jarrett in White Heat (just the type of role and film Cagney was trying to avoid), Warners would give William Cagney Productions a co-distribution deal through which they could pay off their considerable losses.”

White Heat, of course, turned out to be a big hit, and seeing the potential financial gain, William Cagney Productions purchased a similar property for Jimmy with Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, while continuing to seek out projects that would further broaden his repertoire.

When Barbara was called to the WB lot to audition for the leading female role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, she hadn’t expected too much to come of it. With the recent loss of the mistress part in The Asphalt Jungle still fresh on her mind, Barbara had resigned herself to the possibility that this job, too, would slip through her fingers.

She needn’t have worried. Upon viewing her screen test, Bill Cagney, who would again be producing the film, was evidently so taken with Barbara’s beauty and talent, he immediately gave her the part, and then signed her to a personal contract, to be shared equally with Jack Warner. In the winter of 1950, WB and Cagney Productions hired Barbara at $5,000 a week—quite an exorbitant amount for a Hollywood newcomer. The studio then embarked on an intensive program designed to mold their new acquisition into one of the lot's top players. This involved the usual rituals of voice, acting, and dance lessons, ballet class, and the requisite glamour shots—the results of which quickly graced the pages of many of the country's leading newspapers and movie magazines.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a cynical, violent film in which Barbara Payton renders what is unarguably her best and most memorable performance. She plays Cagney’s moll, “Holiday Carleton”, a good-hearted—if somewhat gullible—blonde who goes bad through her association with sadistic gangster “Ralph Cotter” (Cagney).

Adapted from the Horace McCoy novel of the same name,the screenplay has convict Cagney escaping from a brutal prison farm with the help of another inmate’s sister (played by Barbara), only to continue his criminal activities on the outside. As he plots the robbery of a local market’s payroll, he shacks up with the trampy and naive Barbara, who after being beaten by him with a rolled-up towel, quickly succumbs to his advances. Though it is known to the audience from the film’s opening frames, Barbara’s Holiday Carleton is unaware that her brother was shot and killed by Cagney—and not the authorities—during their escape.

The plot thickens when two crooked cops (played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane) attempt to shakedown Cagney and his gang, only to be blackmailed themselves by Cagney’s far more cunning—and blatantly mad—Ralph Cotter. When Cotter dallies with a wealthy politician’s daughter (Helena Carter), a hot-tempered Holiday responds by flinging a coffee pot at him; after which, the couple make love. Only after it is revealed to the impressionable woman that he is responsible for her brother’s death, does she take her revenge by killing him.

Though Cagney is obviously the focal point of the show, the motion picture boasts a strong supporting cast of WB contract players, including the aforementioned Bond, Carter, and MacLane, as well as Steve Brodie and John Litel, with an outstanding performance by Luther Adler as a crooked lawyer who is in cahoots with Cagney.

In a veritable sea of finely wrought characterizations, Barbara acquitted herself admirably in a very high-profile part, one that brought her a great deal of public notice and media attention. In its review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter declared, “Barbara Payton, in the difficult role of a basically good girl who turns to evil in spite of herself, makes a vivid appearance. She manages the subtle transition with polished artistry.”

Legendary producer A.C. Lyles recalls the hubbub Barbara’s performance created in town upon the film’s release. “When the picture came out and I went to see it in the theater, I saw that all of those things that I heard about Barbara Payton were absolutely true. She was excellent in the part, totally believable. She really came off with a strong personality on the screen, and Barbara had that star spades! It seemed like the entire industry was talking about her.”

Author Lisa Burks, who has spent years researching the life of Barbara’s future husband, actor Franchot Tone, for the forthcoming biography Urbane Rebel: The Franchot Tone Story, also gives high marks to Barbara’s acting in the film. “She really held her own against James Cagney,” she says, “and it was a gutsy performance, particularly for a newcomer. Aside from her captivating beauty, Barbara had a lot of on-screen charisma.”

Many of the film’s reviews commented on Barbara’s sexy looks, with The New York Times stating, “...As the moll, a superbly curved young lady (named) Barbara Payton performs as though she’s trying to spit a tooth—one of the few Mr. Cagney leaves her.”

Released on August 4, 1950, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was a fairly sizable hit, despite the film’s being banned in several Midwestern states due to its excessive violence. The profits from the picture were so good they enabled William Cagney Productions to pay off the half million dollar bank loan it owed after The Time of Your Life tanked.

Barbara would later give a great deal of credit to James and William Cagney for her initial success in Hollywood. They took a chance on her while she was still an unknown commodity, and in doing so, gave her career a perfectly respectable launch-off with her role in the film—a wonderfully generous opportunity that she never forgot.

“Barbara was crazy about James Cagney,” says her sister-in-law and longtime best friend, Jan Redfield. “She talked about how great he was to work with and said she studied hard to do just the right thing at the right time as she really wanted to please him.

“She also raved about his sister, Jeanne. She must have visited the set because Barb said she had some conversations with her and she thought she was a dynamite lady. Barbara didn’t normally complement too many other women, so Jeanne must have really impressed her.”


Barbara had idolized James Cagney ever since she saw him in person at a war bond rally in Odessa in 1943. Then just 16 years old, she had gotten to meet him that afternoon and never dreamed that six years later, she would be starring as his leading lady in a prestigious Hollywood film. “Working with James Cagney was magical, “ Barbara later wrote. “ He gave me my big break... I would have done anything for him.”

For his part, Cagney’s recollections of Barbara were cordial, but much less impassioned. He once made the comment that, “Barbara was an actress of impressive, if limited skill,” and in his 1976 autobiography, he discusses the film they co-starred in, yet never once mentions Barbara by name.

However, Cagney would certainly never forget Barbara. Nor, for that matter, would the rest of Hollywood…especially with the incredible chain of events that were still to come in her tragic, star-crossed life.

Monday, July 07, 2008

T-Men (1947)

Director Anthony Mann’s 1947 breakout film T-Men duped me, but that’s what he had in mind. Deception is the theme that resonates throughout the story of Mann’s film and he cleverly delivers that premise of duplicity right into the lap of the audience. Mann sets up the viewer from the opening frames of the film by showing a stern and official statement from the Secretary of the Treasury regarding the money filmed, under permission, in the movie. Mann then introduces wide shot of the Washington Monument which pans to the Treasury Department building. A narrator gives a brief historical background of the Treasury Department over these images which eventually lead into the office of Elmer Lincoln Irey. Responsible for bringing down Al Capone with Frank J. Wilson and Elliot Ness, Irey was also one of the lead investigators on the Lindbergh kidnapping case among other high profile cases in a long illustrious career as a Treasury Agent (T-Man), coordinator of the Treasury Department's law enforcement agency, and U.S. Secret Service operation overseer. Filmed sitting at his giant desk with the Washington D.C. skyline in the window behind him, Irey stoically explains that the case we are about to see is a composite of several counterfeiting cases the Treasury Department cracked over the years. With such a beginning we’re set up for all the makings of a by the book docudrama. T-Men however is a surprisingly gritty and suspenseful work containing some of the most striking and impressive visuals in film noir.

From Irey’s office we cut to Los Angeles where a man in a trench coat lurks in the dark shadows. Human forms are dwarfed by asymmetrical shots of stark buildings shrouded in the black of night. A nefarious figure in an alley is uniquely framed by the camera between the legs of a man who guns him down. These sets of dynamic shots are beautifully jarring compared to the formal introduction of the film and also a key indicator that what we are about to watch unfold is certainly not a dry docudrama. The murdered man we learn later was a Treasury Department informant, set to turn over a paper sample used by a top counterfeiting ring. This opening sequence sets the stage for our story of a mafia counterfeiting operation and two T-Men going undercover to bust up the ring before their true identities are discovered and they wind up deader than the Presidents on dollar bills.

Treasury Agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are put on the case of cracking the major counterfeiting ring that spans between the mob in Los Angeles and Detroit. O’Brien and Genaro are assigned to begin in Detroit where they research the local crime history and create their undercover identities of two hoods from a defunct Detroit gang. With their new identities, flashy suits, and help from the local police (who “legitimize” their criminality with the local hoods), O’Brien and Genaro sell their parts convincingly enough to get in on the ground floor of the Vantucci mob. This crew directly benefits from the L.A. based counterfeiting production among other illegal enterprises. After getting the lowdown on the Vantucci mob’s operation, O’Brien goes to Los Angeles to track down a man named The Schemer (Wallace Ford) who coordinates the fraudulent currency between L.A. and Detroit while Genaro stays behind keeping tabs on the Vantuccis. O’Brien tracks down The Schemer and infiltrates the counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles with a counterfeit bill of his own supplied by the Treasury Department. The engraving on O’Brien’s phony bill is of the highest quality but the paper is sub par. The Schemer’s counterfeiting connections have aesthetically inferior photoengraved bills but their paper is nearly indistinguishable from real U.S. currency. O’Brien uses these elements to bargain with the counterfeiters: his superior engraved plates coupled with their high quality paper to make the best fake bills possible. O’Brien gets to meet with the higher ups in the ring; their expectations being he will deliver them his superb plates. At that time O’Brien and his fellow T-Men will stop the presses on the fraudulent operation.

O’Brien and Genaro’s undercover operation is jeopardized on several occasions as their true identities are repeatedly on the verge of being discovered by the mob. Both men play their parts well, but The Schemer becomes suspicious after he and Genaro run into the agent’s wife and her friend at the market one day. Genaro and his wife (June Lockhart) awkwardly pretend not to know one another. The Schemer however detects the strange exchange between the two and tells the mob bosses there’s something fishy about Genaro. The Schemer is partially motivated to do so for self preservation as he has somewhat fallen out of favor with the mob and believes they may kill him. He also has kept a coded book recording the mob’s activities as a potential bargaining chip in case he gets into dire straights with the mob or the authorities. Genaro and O’Brien learn of The Schemer’s book and exploit his paranoia in an attempt to get their hands on the book and the invaluable information it contains. The plans however go awry for our undercover T-Men and bodies on both sides of the law start dropping as the stakes increase.

For much of the film Anthony Mann focuses on the characters of O’Brien and Genaro; specifically each embracing their new identities. While deception and duplicity are necessary means to breaking the case and keeping them alive, O’Brien and Genaro seem to adopt their roles so thoroughly, the viewer begins to question their lives outside of their undercover characters. When we’re first shown O’Brien he’s on an airplane headed to a briefing in Washington D.C. The woman beside him, wearing a feathered hat, falls asleep on his shoulder. The feathers keep tickling his face and a stewardess questions him if he wants her to wake up the woman beside him. O’Brien shakes his head no and humorously pantomimes a request for a pair of scissors to supposedly clip the feathers that are bothering him. Showing an affable side, the brief scene is placed as a stark juxtaposition to the O’Brien we see for the rest of the film: Tough, streetwise, cunning and violent are the attributes and actions of his mob character. Mann seems to practically deny their humanity outside of their undercover identities. Our introduction to Tony Genaro’s character takes place on a train (heading to the same briefing as O’Brien) as he carefully sets a small standing frame containing a picture of his wife before beginning his paperwork. His wife is not an extension or indicator of Tony’s humanity. She simply becomes a plot device, adding to the sum of duplicity, double-crossing and corruption in the underworld in which they now operate and “live.” At times Genaro and especially O’Brien seem to relish the perversity of their lives as mobsters. Mann’s purpose in this approach leaves the viewer unsettled, anxious, and feeling hoodwinked without any stock or convenient emotional connections to the protagonists. Mann however keeps the audience off-balance not only by his narrative choices, but his uncanny visuals helmed by the director of photography John Alton.

The overall look of the film is the real standout star. John Alton had a true gift for incorporating a tense dichotomy of light and dark in the same frame. His use of shadow often changes men into menacing silhouettes. But he also integrated daring strokes of light against these black figures, giving us just glimpse enough of their eyes, for example, to be reminded of their humanity (or lack there of). Alton was truly a master of fast fall-off lighting; the effect yields stunning contrasts from the precisely lit characters, to the seas of shadow in which they seem to swim. Mann and Alton continue keeping the audience off guard by using oblique and unusual angles to film the action. John Alton excels in framing and positioning characters inside the natural landscapes of the city and other surroundings producing dynamic shots. He also had unique ways of creating tension simply by positioning the camera in low and unorthodox angles. One such specific instance occurs when O’Brien is quickly trying to recover one of the counterfeit plates he’s stashed under a bathroom sink while one of the mob cronies is at the same basin washing up. Time is of the essence as he literally has minutes to recover it, but if the goon sees him grab the plate his cover will be blown. Instead of perhaps a conventional medium shot depicting the action, Alton places the camera at the feet of the men pivoted up to reveal the bottom of the sink. This angle shows the plate’s hiding spot and O’Brien’s hands nervously fumbling to grab the plate while the casual banter between the two is taking place off camera. The anxiety and stress of the situation is exponentially magnified by Alton’s simple yet brilliant decision of camera placement. He also utilizes deep focus shots, reflective surfaces, camera movement and many other techniques masterfully. 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.

T-Men however isn’t flawless. There are a few holes in the plot and I found the narrator’s voice-overs distracting toward the finale just to name a few. Despite some shaky areas in the story, I found that Dennis O’Keefe’s standout performance truly helped to compensate for the detractions. Despite the aforementioned weaknesses director Anthony Mann adroitly stays on task with a nice narrative pace and quality exposition. What puts T-Men in a whole different stratosphere is Alton’s photography. The man had a true gift with visual composition, lighting and of course the camera. If anything the visuals alone secure T-Men among the elite titles in the film noir cannon.

Written by Tim (aka Mappin & Webb Ltd.)

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