There are countless film
noirs meriting Blu-ray treatment, but perhaps none so deserving as T-Men (1947), arguably the best of the
documentary-style noirs of the late 1940s, distinguished by its uncompromising
tone, stylish direction and brilliant cinematography. While many individuals
contributed to its success, the film was above all a triumph of creative
collaboration between two of Hollywood’s greatest visual artists: director
Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton. The two capitalized on the film’s
narrative—government agents infiltrating a counterfeiting ring in an underworld
of sudden cruelty and shifting allegiances—to push the noir/crime film to new
extremes of stylized violence and subjective intensity.
Although better known for
his dark psychological westerns of the 1950s, Mann honed his craft in the even
darker waters of forties film noir. Like many directors of his generation, Mann
cut his teeth in the demanding arena of B movies, churning out a dozen
bottom-of-the-bill programmers for Republic, RKO and PRC between 1942-1947. Although
he made several musicals during this period, Mann was much more at home
directing noirish films like The Great
Flamarion (1945) and Strange
Impersonation (1946), which gave scope to his thematic obsession with conflicted,
desperate characters navigating through a world of moral ambivalence and
Mann was the thinking man’s
director par excellence, equally adept at staging dynamic set pieces as probing
his protagonists’ inner responses to narrative stimuli, usually in the same
scene. His sensitivity to characters better able to cope with physical rather
than psychological roadblocks made him right at home in the existential
uncertainties of noir. Relentless pacing, kinetic visuals and an intense focus
on the emotional and psychological dissonance of his characters were among his
hallmarks. T-Men, made for Eagle Lion
Films, was the fullest realization of his aesthetic to date.
Helping Mann transfer his
dark vision to the screen was legendary cinematographer John Alton, whose
chiaroscuro photography recalled the glory days of German film expressionism.
The Hungarian-born Alton was among the most daring and experimental of
Hollywood cameramen. His work sometimes bordered on the abstract, but only when
it served the needs of the story. Often stuck with directors unreceptive to his
ideas, his pairing with the open-minded Mann was a match made in noir heaven. Alton’s shadowy, half-lit urban
environments provide the perfect visual correlative to Mann’s thematic emphasis
on paranoia and emotional crisis. Known for his minimal use of lights—he got
better effects with a handful of lights than cameramen who used dozens—Alton
succinctly summed up his photographic philosophy: “It’s not what you light,
it’s what you don’t light.”
marked the appearance of another significant creative partner for Mann in the
person of John C. Higgins, who had penned the director’s previous film, Railroaded (1947). Higgins was one of noir’s
more prolific and dependable screenwriters. In addition to the five films he did
with Mann, he also scripted the iconic noirs Shield for Murder (1954) and Big
House, U.S.A. (1955). While T-Men’s
accolades are typically reserved for Alton’s chiaroscuro and Mann’s
nerve-shredding mise en scène, Higgins’ tough, pungent dialog shouldn’t be
overlooked. He was arguably the first quality screenwriter Mann worked with.
Higgins’ tight scenario
centers on treasury agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro
(Alfred Ryder), who go undercover to break up a counterfeiting operation working
out of Detroit and Los Angeles. Posing as members of a once-prominent Detroit
gang (O’Brien adopting the moniker Vannie Harrigan, Genaro becoming Tony
Galvani), the pair gain conditional access to the organization through a
low-level middleman called The Schemer (Wallace Ford), offering as bait an
engraving plate of exceptional quality. Having fallen from favor with his
employers, the Schemer hopes to redeem himself by brokering a deal between his
felonious new pals and the organization’s top brass. The latter are interested
but wary, and as negotiations proceed keep O’Brien and Genaro under close surveillance
by the gang’s enforcer Moxie (Charles McGraw).
Although the T-Men slip all too easily into their roles as vicious hoodlums (underscoring the thin line that divides the good and bad in all men), they remain under constant threat of exposure and death. Much of the film’s suspense results from the fear and paranoia under which they operate. Their covers eventually begin to fray when The Schemer witnesses an unplanned encounter between Genaro and his wife, who cannot conceal their mutual recognition. The Schemer duly reports his suspicions to his superiors, unaware that he too is about to become expendable, even though he’s compiled a little black blackmail book on the gang’s activities.
The ice under O’Brien and Genaro becomes even thinner at this point, giving way completely for the latter when the counterfeiters confirm his true identity. O’Brien presses on, eventually gaining access to the mastermind behind the bogus money racket even as his own chances of survival edge perilously close to the red zone. All of these dynamics are fodder for some Mann/Alton indelible sequences: Moxie roasting the duplicitous Schemer in a steam bath from hell, shot with surrealist flourish by Alton. Moxie sending a government agent to the next world as O’Brien watches helplessly, his face (in a trademark Mann close-up) registering impotent, psychic anguish. Moxie receiving well-deserved comeuppance during a blistering gun battle with O’Brien aboard the counterfeiters’ cargo ship, a set piece filmed and edited with superb timing and panache.
Adding thematic texture to the proceedings are the blurred lines between the methods and personalities of the treasury agents and those of their criminal adversaries, with the implicit suggestion they are but two sides of the same coin. Higgins’ dialog hints at this as O’Brien dons flashy attire for his metamorphosis into Harrigan. “Hmm. This is a nice suit. Hope the taxpayers can afford it. I know I couldn’t on my salary.” Mann visually underlines these similarities by emphasizing the ease with which O’Brien and Genaro fit into the brutal underworld, utilizing lighting and camera angles that render the pair’s undercover personas with a vividness and veracity denied their actual, law-abiding selves.
O’Keefe and Ryder help sell this thematic duality through nicely shaded characterizations that let the viewer know they’re really on the side of the angels even as they behave like devils. While O’Keefe’s open, affable personality made him a natural for comedy, he was equally at home in the hard-bitten poetics of noir, and his turn as a tough treasury agent is wholly convincing. He was well paired with Ryder, whose distinctive face projected a hunted, secretive quality made to order for the character of Genaro.
Lending solid support was ace character actor Wallace Ford as the weaselly Schemer. Full of false bravado and servile sycophancy, he emerges as the film’s most pitiable, if not sympathetic figure. The Schemer also rates the most colorful dialog, expressed in a vernacular all his own: “They been giving me the cold shoulder lately. Giving me the fish-eye, kicking me around. What’s behind all this?” He’s matched by noir icon McGraw, whose very presence seemed to embody the Grim Reaper, especially when photographed for maximum minatory effect by John Alton. The sadistic delight his character takes in The Schemer’s death by scalding is almost as disturbing as the act itself. McGraw’s cold-blooded performance gives T-Men much of its disturbing affect.
This seminal noir is marred only the stentorian voice-over that intrudes at regular intervals to comment on the proceedings and help “guide” the viewer, a device likely imposed on the film against Mann’s wishes. (Reed Hadley of Racket Squad fame did the dubious honors.) Fortunately, the moralizing tone is effectively subverted by the overwhelmingly dark ambience created by the Mann-Alton partnership. That the film still vaults to noir’s upper echelon is testament to the prodigious talents of its creators.
This ClassicFlix edition of T-Men easily qualifies as one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2017, the stunning 1080P transfer doing full justice to the iconic, innovative cinematography of John Alton and the bravura vision of Anthony Mann. It immediately relegates the VCI and Wild Side DVDs of T-Men to the trash bin. Watching it on a 50-inch or larger television in a dark room comes close to the experience of seeing it in a theater.
T-Men is a film that lives in the shadows, and this disc does full justice to Alton’s vaunted low-light imagery, displaying fully all of its details, textures and tonalities. Whites are crisp, blacks are bottomless, and shadows are delineated in an infinite range of greys. The powerhouse visuals come alive in all their dark glory: The haunting shot of Moxie emerging from Stygian darkness as he hunts an informant on the mean streets of the city. The dazzling montage depicting O’Brien sweating it out in a succession of steam rooms in search of the Schemer, which Alton lights as if they were places of worship. The extreme low angles Mann uses to deliver hard-edged frissons for viewers, as when O’Brien is beaten by a group of angry men, tossed into the street and nearly run over by a speeding car.
Watching T-Men on this Blu-ray is like seeing it for the first time. The film’s superb visuals are matched by the uncompressed mono soundtrack that boasts exceptional clarity and balance in its rendering of dialog, sound effects and music. (The film received a 1947 Academy Award nomination for Best Sound.)
Befitting the visual and aural presentation, the extras are also first class. For starters, there’s a beautiful 24-page booklet, featuring an incisive essay by Max Alvarez (author of The Crime Films of Anthony Mann) and liberally illustrated with black-and-white stills and color lobby cards. Film historian Alan K. Rode contributes a fascinating and informative audio commentary in which he delves deep into the film’s production as well as the techniques Mann and Alton brought to it. Rounding things off are an 11-minute featurette analyzing the Mann-Alton collaboration, and a nine-minute interview with Mann’s daughter Nina in which she touches on aspects of her father’s personal life and relates them to the kind of characters he focused on during his career.