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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Tycoon (Dec. 27, 1947)

Richard Wallace’s Tycoon is a bloated, overlong Technicolor epic that takes place in the Andes. It stars John Wayne as a big, tough, fearless railway engineer named Johnny Munroe.

Munroe and his crew of wisecracking roughnecks are hired by a fussy British aristocrat named Frederic Alexander (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) — who for some reason has a sprawling estate in South America — to build a railroad tunnel through miles of solid rock.

Munroe thinks it would be smarter to just build a bridge over the mountain, but Alexander’s personal engineer Ricky (Anthony Quinn) wants a tunnel — and the stockholders agree with him — so that’s what the stockholders will get.

Munroe’s difficult job becomes even harder when he meets Alexander’s pretty daughter Maura (Laraine Day). Alexander is an overprotective single father who plans for his daughter to marry a suitable man and take her place in society, so when she falls for Munroe’s thuggish charms he’s horrified. He tells her that he understands that in pagan Rome young women of breeding amused themselves with gladiators, but he never thought she’d fall victim to such venal desires.

The romantic and domestic scenes in Tycoon are campy and poorly handled. The masculine realm is better handled, but not by much, and at more than two hours long, I found Tycoon a chore to get through.

John Wayne is one of the most famous movie stars of all time, but there’s a reason his most popular movies are westerns and war movies. He just wasn’t that good at playing romantic leads.

Tycoon was the most expensive movie to date from RKO Radio Pictures, but I doubt it caused Darryl F. Zanuck or any of the other big studio heads to look over their shoulders too much. The film’s $3.2 million budget didn’t touch spectacles like Cecil B. DeMille’s $5 million Unconquered (1947) or Zanuck’s $6 million Forever Amber (1947), but even taking into account the difference in budget, Tycoon can’t hold a candle to other big-budget flicks. The filmmakers originally planned to shoot at RKO’s Estudios Churubusco in Mexico, but shifted production to Hollywood at the last minute. Consequently, Tycoon just doesn’t look that good. All the backgrounds are matte paintings and the Incan ruins are obviously sets. There are a bunch of explosions and a big finale involving a race against time to stabilize a bridge against the onslaught of an overflowing river that involves some pretty hot miniatures and a stunt double who looks nothing like Wayne, but that’s about it in terms of excitement.

The Voice of the Turtle (Dec. 25, 1947)

The first thing you should know before you watch Irving Rapper’s The Voice of the Turtle (or One for the Book, its title when it’s shown on TV) is that in 1947, the phrase “make love to” didn’t mean “have sexual intercourse with,” which is more or less what it means today. In the ’40s it was a nebulous expression that could mean anything from “pitching woo” to “heavy petting,” but didn’t explicitly refer to P to V contact.

So when pretty young struggling actress Sally Middleton (Eleanor Parker) says, “I was raised to think no nice girl let a man make love to her unless … unless it was serious — I mean, sort of marriage — otherwise you’d be cheapening yourself,” she’s not talking about making the beast with two backs.

Or is she?

It’s hard to say, because Rapper’s film is a sanitized version of one of the longest running plays in Broadway history. The Voice of the Turtle opened in 1943 and was nearly at the end of its run when the film version came out. John Van Druten’s play was a funny and frank look at the sexual lives of young New Yorkers during World War II. Clearly the story of a nice young man and a nice young woman who decided to go to bed together couldn’t be made into a Hollywood film without some alterations. Or, as the review of the film in the December 15, 1947, issue of Time put it, “The movie is most coyly prurient where the play was most pleasantly candid.”

Van Druten adapted his play for the screen, and even though it contains the obligatory concessions to the Hays Code, I found it enjoyable, funny, and charming. As someone who grew up with President Reagan, it’s always a little weird seeing him as a younger man, since there are so many things about his physical appearance and line delivery that literally never changed over the course of four decades.

Even though he was 36 when he appeared in The Voice of the Turtle, Reagan still had the slightly high voice, nervous smile, and “aw shucks” attitude that exemplified youthful masculinity in the ’40s.

Other than that and a few missing wrinkles, however, I felt as if he could have been telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall” or explaining the Strategic Defense Initiative to his fellow Americans.

But I digress. In any case, I liked Reagan as the good-natured Sgt. Bill Page, who’s pushed aside at the last moment by the worldly Olive Lashbrooke (Eve Arden) for the lunkheaded Commander Ned Burling (Wayne Morris). Bill ends up staying at Sally’s apartment over the long Christmas weekend after he can’t find a hotel in Manhattan. (Eve Arden played the heroine’s best gal pal in more movies than Randolph Scott played cowboys or Keye Luke played Chinamen, but here she gets to play a role with a little bite. She’s not a total jerk, but she clearly cares more about herself than she does about her friend.)

Despite a few inserted scenes that are meant to imply that Bill and Sally don’t really engage in any heavy hanky-panky (those scenes can easily be ignored, if you so wish), I thought The Voice of the Turtle was a funny and enjoyable look at two likable young people who fall in love with each other despite each having a broken heart and a reluctance to mend it.

A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

Daisy Kenyon (Dec. 25, 1947)

Maybe I’ve been watching too many crime melodramas, but I kept expecting Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon to go in a different direction than it did. It’s a movie that’s often classified as a film noir, and the cinematography by Leon Shamroy is an atmospheric blend of light and shadow. David Raksin’s score is lush and moving. The performances of the film’s three stars are all excellent.

But I kept expecting things to devolve into murderous tragedy, and it was a little disconcerting when they didn’t. Granted, the film was based on a controversial bestseller by Elizabeth Janeway about adultery, so plenty of film-goers in 1947 and 1948 knew exactly what to expect when they bought their tickets. I, on the other hand, was thrown for a loop by how understated and mature the story ended up being.

Daisy Kenyon (Joan Crawford) is a successful commercial artist who is in a long-standing relationship with a married man, a lawyer named Dan O’Mara (Dana Andrews). When the film begins, she’s beginning to realize that Dan is never going to leave his wife for her, even though he loves Daisy very much. This opening put me in mind of Joan Crawford’s last picture, Possessed (1947), which could be why I kept expecting Daisy Kenyon to end in a murder, a suicide, or both.

Another reason is the creepy, shell-shocked performance of Henry Fonda as combat veteran Peter Lapham, the man Daisy hastily marries after she breaks off her affair with Dan.

Interestingly, Daisy Kenyon is a story in which things start to go bad not when an adulterous love affair begins, but when it ends.

Even though there is a good deal of tension in the relationships between the characters in Daisy Kenyon, I didn’t find myself very invested in the story. I did appreciate that it was a well-made film with no real heroes or villains, but it never fully captured my imagination. The last 10 minutes are really good, however, and I honestly didn’t know how it was going to end.

Daisy Kenyon is recommended for Joan Crawford devotees, Otto Preminger completists, and fans of women’s pictures.

Captain From Castile (Dec. 25, 1947)

Henry King’s Captain From Castile premiered on Christmas day in New York and Los Angeles, and went into wide release in January 1948.

It’s a lavish, Technicolor epic marred by a handful of flaws. The biggest flaw is that it doesn’t have an ending, and just sort of stops halfway through. The journey to the non-ending is uneven but generally entertaining and occasionally spectacular, which makes its abruptness all the more frustrating.

Captain From Castile is based on Samuel Shellabarger’s novel of the same name, which was published in early 1945. It was originally serialized, and was incredibly popular even before its publication in book form. Darryl F. Zanuck paid $100,000 for the rights, which was a lot of cabbage in the ’40s.

The film version only covers the first half of Shellabarger’s novel. Zanuck originally planned to exhibit Captain From Castile as a roadshow presentation with an intermission, so I’m not sure if the unsatisfying end was due to budget concerns or a flawed script. Three and a half months of shooting in Mexico wasn’t cheap, and the bottom kind of dropped out of movie-going in 1947 (after 1946, which was the biggest movie-going year of all time). Captain From Castile made its money back and then some, but it wasn’t a runaway success due to its incredibly high budget.

The film begins in Spain in the spring of 1518, and follows the progression of a young Castilian named Pedro de Vargas (played by Tyrone Power) from callow youth to victim of the Inquisition to seasoned soldier under the command of Hernando Cortés in Mexico. (Cortés is played to the laughing, mustache-twirling, swaggering hilt by Cesar Romero.)

Despite the presence of swashbuckling superstar Tyrone Power, Captain From Castile isn’t really a swashbuckling adventure film. It’s a historical epic in which narrative tension is nonexistent for long stretches. All sequences involving the Cortés expedition were filmed in Mexico, and often on the location associated with the actual event. Captain From Castile always looks fantastic, but its story isn’t always up to the high standards of the visuals.

I really love Tyrone Power, though, and with all due respect to Errol Flynn, I think Power is the greatest swashbuckling star of all time. I also think he’s a much better actor than he’s given credit for, and he turns in a strong performance in Captain From Castile.

But moments of real power in the film are few and far between.

There’s one sequence, however, that I think stands as one of the best of Power’s career. After Pedro de Vargas is imprisoned by the Inquisition and his roguish friend Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb) has secreted weapons in his cell, his mortal enemy Diego de Silva (John Sutton) — the man responsible for Pedro’s sister’s death by torture — enters to taunt Pedro. This leads to a fast, brutal sword fight in close quarters that’s one of the best and most exciting I’ve ever seen.

Pedro’s romance with the servant girl Catana (played by the very inexperienced actress Jean Peters) is romantic and sexy — especially the scene in which Pedro dances with her in front of Cortés’s entire camp. The musical score by Alfred Newman is fantastic, and was one of the first film scores to be released as a soundtrack album.

The film looks amazing. The Technicolor cinematography is great, and the Mexican locations were so cooperative that the Paricutin volcano even agreed to erupt during filming to stand in for the eruption of Popocatepetl in the 16th century.

But there’s ultimately something a little slack and unsatisfying about Captain From Castile, and it’s not just the anticlimactic ending. I’d recommend Captain From Castile to all fans of bloated historical epics, but if you’ve never seen a Tyrone Power film, it’s not the best place to start.

The Lady From Shanghai (Dec. 24, 1947)

Orson Welles’s The Lady From Shanghai premiered in France on Christmas Eve, 1947, and in the United States nearly half a year later, on June 9, 1948.

The film is something of a minor classic now, but at the time of its release it was generally a disappointment; a disappointment to critics, to the studio, to audiences, and to Welles himself, who had little control over the final product released into theaters.

The Lady From Shanghai was filmed in 1946, and the original cut ran more than two and a half hours. Executives at Columbia Pictures made numerous cuts, and the final musical score was not to Welles’s liking. The litany of complaints from all sides were legion, and are outside the scope of this review.

But before I get into a discussion of the film itself, I need to mention the complaint that I find most mystifying. Welles chose to radically alter the looks of his leading lady, Rita Hayworth (to whom he was married from 1943 to 1948), by chopping her long tresses and dying her hair platinum blond. This decision caused a whirlwind of controversy, and was blamed by some in Hollywood for the dismal box office performance of The Lady From Shanghai.

Was the movie-going public in 1948 composed entirely of people whose tonsorial proclivities were identical to the Son of Sam’s? I think that Rita Hayworth is stunningly beautiful and alluring no matter what her hairstyle, and The Lady From Shanghai is all the proof I need.

The Lady From Shanghai stars Welles as a “black Irish” rascal and drifter named Michael O’Hara who saves a beautiful young woman named Elsa Bannister (Hayworth) from a group of muggers in Central Park, and then becomes embroiled in a byzantine scheme that involves a faked death.

The plan is hatched by her husband’s law partner, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), who wants O’Hara to confess to murdering him after Grisby leaves the country, never to return. The rub is that without a body, the authorities won’t be able to convict O’Hara, and he’ll pocket a lump sum of cash for his trouble while Grisby pockets the insurance money. But Elsa’s husband, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), has noticed the way Elsa and O’Hara make eyes at each other, and he’s got his own wild scheme.

Even for a movie that was hacked down from 155 minutes to just 87, The Lady From Shanghai covers a lot of ground, and much of it is crazy. O’Hara accompanies the Bannisters and their entourage on a yacht tour of Mexico on their way from New York to San Francisco before the plot really gets rolling. Then, after the triple-cross scheme plays out, there’s a farcical courtroom scene that is genuinely funny and truly bizarre. Finally, there is a wild and phantasmagoric journey through San Francisco’s Chinatown that culminates in a chase through an abandoned fairground, and the film’s famous climax in the hall of mirrors of The Crazy House.

Given the studio-imposed cuts in the film’s running time, it’s probably not Welles’s fault that the plot is full of holes. But it’s hard to imagine any additional footage or story elements that would make the wild shifts in tone and byzantine plot any more digestible.

Ultimately, though, it really doesn’t matter. If you can get over Welles’s bad Irish accent and the general confusion of ideas in The Lady From Shanghai, it’s a brilliant, engrossing film that’s a joy to watch. Besides the gorgeous black and white cinematography and wonderful performances from Sloane, Hayworth, and Anders (and Welles, more or less), Welles is a director who was decades ahead of his time in terms of action and pacing. The slightly sped-up camerawork during fight scenes and the rapid editing isn’t like anything else you’ll see from the mid- to late-’40s.

There are a lot of things about The Lady From Shanghai that are totally unlike anything else in cinema at the time of its release. Welles’s reach usually exceeded his grasp, but as a director I think he was without parallel. The Lady From Shanghai may not be a perfectly formed work of art like Citizen Kane (1941), but it’s a fascinating and incredibly entertaining film.

The Sea Hound (15 chapters) (Sept. 11-Dec. 18, 1947)

The Sea Hound, subtitled the “Dare Devil Adventures of Captain Silver,” stars serial superstar Buster Crabbe as Capt. Silver, a broad-shouldered, fearless adventure-seeker who sails the waters of the South Pacific with his faithful crew of oddballs, goofballs, and racial stereotypes. It’s unclear how the crew of the Sea Hound came together, or what their mission is — aside from committing acts of random bravery and wild derring-do — but if you want to enjoy a chapterplay it’s best not to ask too many questions.

The Sea Hound was produced for Columbia Pictures by Sam Katzman. The credits say it was “based on the well known radio program and cartoon magazine.” The comic was published by Avon, but I haven’t been able to find much information about publication dates.

The radio show ran as a weekday serial from 1942 to 1944 on the Blue Network and from 1946 to 1947 on the Mutual Broadcasting System, then briefly on ABC in 1948 as a half-hour adventure show with a complete story each week. The radio plays were focused on Capt. Silver’s youthful crewman Jerry. Jerry’s a character in The Sea Hound serial (played by Ralph Hodges), but there’s no mistaking who the hero is — it’s Buster Motherf—ing Crabbe, that’s who.

Crabbe was pushing 40 when he made The Sea Hound, and he was no longer the trim, leonine figure he was when he starred in the Flash Gordon serials. But after seeing him with his shirt off in The Sea Hound (which happens with alarming regularity) I felt bad about ripping on him for looking out-of-shape in all those PRC westerns he made. Crabbe had packed on some bulk since the Flash Gordon serials, but most of us do when we’re no longer in our 20s, and while he might not look like Flash Gordon anymore, he’s still a square-jawed, muscular hero-type, and he still cuts through the water like only an Olympic Gold Medalist can.

Katzman would eventually be humorously known as “Jungle Sam,” and The Sea Hound uses its ridiculously cheap tropical locations to maximum effect, just as Katzman did with his serial Jack Armstrong (1947). (The Sea Hound actually hits a lot of the same notes as Jack Armstrong. Hugh Prosser even plays nearly exactly the same potentially treacherous ally character.)

The plot of The Sea Hound involves Capt. Silver coming to the aid of Ann Whitney (Pamela Blake), whose father has gone missing on a treasure-hunting expedition. Opposing Capt. Silver is the dastardly Admiral (Robert Barron), who commands the vessel Albatross and has a motley crew of men with names like “Manila Pete” (Rick Vallin) and “Black Mike” (Stanley Blystone).

The wild cards in the story are the deadly tribe of “Ryaks,” who — much like the “natives” in Katzman’s Jack Armstrong — are a bunch of middle-aged men with bare torsos, floral-print sarongs, and headbands.

The Sea Hound isn’t Oscar-caliber entertainment. It’s not even as good as the best of the Republic serials. But for a Columbia serial, I’ve seen a lot worse. It helps that Buster Crabbe is in fine form, and like I said, he’s the motherf—ing king of the serials.

High Wall (Dec. 17, 1947)

High Wall
High Wall (1947)
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall stars Robert Taylor as that most venerable of film noir archetypes — the amnesiac combat veteran who may or may not have committed murder.

Bernhardt was one of many German filmmakers who fled the Third Reich to work in Hollywood, and whose dark artistic sensibilities helped create what we now know as “film noir.” So far I’ve seen two other films he made, the excellent melodrama My Reputation (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, and the equally excellent psychodrama Possessed (1947), which starred Joan Crawford and Van Heflin.

High Wall lets Bernhardt flex his suspense-thriller muscles a little, and he’s more than up to the task.

At first glance, High Wall looks and feels like any number of similar dramas from RKO Radio Pictures — tight, well-made, black and white flicks designed for the bottom of a double bill — but it was actually produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a powerhouse of a studio that wasn’t usually in the “noir” business.

High Wall is a pretty lean thriller, but MGM production values are evident in a few scenes, particularly when the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), is sent to Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital. The sanitarium features a big cast of extras; there are legions of brusque, businesslike cops and hospital attendants, and dozens of hapless patients lolling around on beds in the open ward. If High Wall had been an on-the-cheap production for Monogram pictures, there probably would have been one night attendant, two other patients, and sets that looked like they were on loan from a theatrical production.

Most of High Wall is shot on sets, so the exteriors are pretty fake-looking, but not distractingly so. Shooting on a soundstage also allows Bernhardt and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, to create a dramatic rain-swept finale full of rich textures that probably wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been shooting on location.

Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter

Also, with such a big cast of loonies, it’s more believable that Kenet has so much difficulty seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).

Kenet, you see, looks like the most likely suspect for his wife’s murder. Her strangled corpse was sitting right next to him when he drove his car off a bridge in a daze, after all.

But after Kenet finally gets a few appointments with Dr. Lorrison, she starts to believe that he might be innocent. Lorrison is a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth gal. (This is evident early in the film when she turns down a male doctor’s offer of a date at the opera because she has Red Sox tickets.)

It’s not just Kenet’s good looks, tragic aura, six-year-old son, and Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star from World War II that attract Lorrison, it’s nagging evidence of his innocence, so she starts helping him escape from the asylum for periods of time so he can investigate upstanding citizen Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a middle-aged man who works for Brattle Press Religious Educational Text Books.

Marshall is the perfect villain for this type of melodrama. His bearing is patrician — and his voice is one of the smoothest and most charming you’ll ever hear — but there’s clearly something very wrong with him.

For a good portion of High Wall, it’s possible to be in doubt of the outcome. Kenet looks guilty, even to the viewer, and he suffers from fainting spells. He has a subdural hematoma in the left lobe that’s causing forgetfulness, irritability, and a possible proclivity toward murder and suicide.

High Wall is a fun movie. When it comes to the question of Audrey Totter’s charm and sexiness, I was a little on the fence after Lady in the Lake (1947), but she’s utterly charming in High Wall, and much more natural in High Wall than in Lady in the Lake. (It’s possible that not requiring her to stare into the camera the whole time might have let her deliver a more natural performance.)

I also really like the preview for High Wall. Its claims are actually accurate, too. “So tense. So taut.” That’s true. High Wall is a well-crafted suspense thriller. Also, when the preview says “Robert Taylor — more exciting than in Undercurrent,” that’s an understatement. Undercurrent is really pretty bad, and High Wall is really pretty good:

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)


T-Men (1947)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

McGraw and Ford

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

O'Keefe and McGraw

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

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