Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) is a significant entry in the classic American film noir cycle and, arguably, the best of the subcycle of “docu-noirs” that was released by Hollywood in the wake of the financial success of Twentieth Century-Fox’s wartime espionage thriller The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945). Made for $450,000 for Eagle-Lion Films, an independent company owned by British cinema mogul J. Arthur Rank, the film with its “culled from the files” tale of two treasury agents investigating a counterfeiting ring tapped into a post-World War II American desire for a greater level of cinematic realism within Hollywood crime melodrama. Mirroring The House on 92nd Street and other docu-noirs such as Boomerang! (Elia Kazan, 1947), Call Northside 777 (Henry Hathaway, 1948), and The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948), T-Men achieved this semblance of realism through the then-innovative (by classical Hollywood standards) on-location filming in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.; a newsreel-style voiceover; and a cast featuring lesser-known stars like former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player Dennis O’Keefe.
The film’s semi-documentary aesthetic was greeted with praise following its release. While The New York Times’ irascible film critic Bosley Crowther questioned the plausibility of T-Men’s “action and [melodramatic] devices”, he praised its on-location photography for possessing “a look of reality not often encountered in such films” and, in a column almost a month later, called for this type of style to be incorporated into non-genre films as well (1). Mann felt creatively invigorated by not being confined to studio sets. “Shooting in natural settings greatly increased the authenticity of [the film’s] scenes and helped shape the film by giving it an appearance and a consistency that were quite unexpected. I liked the aspect of chance that one could always introduce in this style of movie-making,” the director recalled to French film critic and filmmaker Jean-Claude Missiaen in 1967, shortly before succumbing to a heart attack while filming the Cold War thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968, finished by the film’s star Laurence Harvey) in West Germany (2).
Nevertheless, this semi-documentary aesthetic collided with acclaimed cinematographer John Alton’s employment of highly-stylised low-angle camera shots, deep focus, and high contrast black-and-white cinematography, which were the hallmarks of his work in the film noir cycle, most notably in The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) with its iconic final image of the silhouettes of the film’s stars Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace illuminated in the foggy doorframe of an airplane hanger. Before filming commenced on T-Men, the Austro-Hungarian-born Alton had toiled on a long series of low budget films for Republic Pictures where, by his own admission, he developed a reputation for his speed. In Mann, an acquaintance from their days both working on “Poverty Row” pictures at Republic, Alton found an ideal collaborator, one who, like himself, believed that lighting could be a crucial dramatic element. Alton insisted:
I used light for mood. All my pictures looked different. That’s what made my name, that’s what set me apart. People asked for me. I gambled. In most cases, the studios objected. They had the idea that the audience should be able to see everything. But when I started making dark pictures, the audience saw there was a purpose to it. (3)
The noir cinematography in T-Men serves two vital purposes. Not only does it convey the dark psychological metamorphosis of undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien (O’Keefe) and Anthony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) as they are devoured by their savage new identities as gangsters Vannie Harrigan and Tony Galvani, but also this aesthetic undermines the semi-documentary, police procedural elements to suggest that the civil order of postwar American society is a hollow façade.
T-Men’s semi-documentary narrative structure is established in the prologue that follows the opening credits. The film opens with a panorama of Washington, D.C. featuring an extreme long shot of the Washington Monument looming over the capital city, before panning across Sherman Park and resting in front of the steps of the United States Treasury Department. This patriotic atmosphere is heightened by the voiceover of Reed Hadley, whose narration (also utilised by producer Louis de Rochemont in The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang!) emblemised Americana given its broad familiarity as the voice of “America’s famous fighting cowboy” on the Western radio series Red Ryder (Blue Network, 1942-51). Following a brief statement by real-life “t-man” Elmer Lincoln Irey discussing the duties and divisions of the Treasury (“These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist… and that fist hits fair but hard!”), the film dissolves into the dark underworld that dominates the narrative.
During a late night rendezvous in an alleyway off of Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Boulevard, underworld informant Shorty (Curt Conway) is shot dead by Moxie (Charles McGraw), a strong-armed member of an elusive counterfeiting ring, while attempting to provide Treasury agent Newbitt (Victor Cutler) with a clean sample of the Chinese paper used by the counterfeiters. Realising that Newbitt’s cover must have been blown (one of a series of failed attempts to uncover the identities of those behind this illegal enterprise), the Washington office proceeds with greater caution by sending two agents, O’Brien and Genaro, deep undercover within the Detroit-based Vantucci mob family, which is suspected of being connected to the counterfeiters’ liquor stamps operation. By infiltrating the Los Angeles counterfeiters through their Detroit partners, the Washington office believes that O’Brien and Genaro might be able to gain the confidence of the counterfeiters and avoid suspicion.
Both O’Brien and Genaro are selected, in part, for their relative anonymity. The nine-year veteran O’Brien is unmarried with his only family being his Irish immigrant parents living in Boston, while the newcomer Genaro is forced to abandon domesticity with his new bride, Mary (June Lockhart), whose presence only a few hours away in San Francisco is deemed a liability to the operation in Los Angeles. When Genaro remarks about how much Mary would love seeing him in his flashy new clothes, O’Brien reminds him that he will have to suppress that part of his identity. “Don’t forget. You’re not married. You’ve been divorced for reasons of duty,” O’Brien asserts bluntly. Rechristened as the ruthless Harrigan and Galvani, two members of the defunct “River Gang”, O’Brien and Genaro enter the underworld of organised crime and its dark atmosphere of seedy hotels, backroom dice games, and Turkish steam baths.
The high-contrast noir lighting and off-kilter compositions of Alton visually underscore the metamorphosis experienced by both O’Brien and Genaro. “Their placement in the compositions emphasises their ease in the criminal milieu”, Blake Lucas observes aptly. “The pull of the story itself is such as to make them schizophrenic: narratively they are stalwart heroes, visually they are brutal hoods” (4). This duality is expressed most graphically in O’Brien, who, like his nemesis and quasi-doppelgänger Moxie, displays an aptitude for assaulting others to solicit information. Both O’Brien and Moxie take particular delight in toying with “The Schemer” (Wallace Ford), who, true to his moniker, plans on gaining the upper hand on his bosses by blackmailing them with a coded ledger that could unveil the entire organisation.
By the conclusion of the film, O’Brien’s demeanour and tactics begin mirroring Moxie: a parallel that is foregrounded visually when the t-man attempts to retrieve an engraved counterfeiting plate hidden underneath a bathroom sink. As Moxie stands shaving in front of the mirror above the sink, Mann and Alton frame the right profile of O’Brien in the extreme left foreground of the frame, so it almost appears that Moxie’s reflection is his own. Not only does this indicate that O’Brien’s new identity has begun paralleling Moxie, but also that the modus operandi of the right and wrong side of the law is not as vast as it first appears. Just as the film’s epilogue illustrates that the corporate nature of American crime enables it to maintain a false façade of legitimacy, the film noir visuals subversively undermine the civil order of both the voiceover narration and the semi-documentary elements to subtly suggest a similar corruption brewing underneath the surface of American legal institutions.
- Bosley Crowther, “T-Men: Story of Job Done by Treasury Department Agents, is New Bill at Criterion”, The New York Times 23 January 1948, p. 28; and Crowther, “Imitations Unwanted: A Plea for Extension of ‘Documentary Style’”, The New York Times 22 February 1948, p. X1.
- Jean-Claude Missiaen, “Conversation with Anthony Mann”, trans. Martyn Auty, Framework no. 15-17, 1981, pp. 17-18.
- Todd McCarthy, “Through a Lens Darkly: The Life and Films of John Alton”, reprinted in John Alton, Painting with Light, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, pp. xix-xx.
- Blake Lucas, “T-Men”, Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, 4th rev. ed., ed. Alain Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, and Robert Porfirio, Overlook, New York, 2010, pp. 292-293.
T-Men (1947 USA 92 minutes)
Prod Co: Reliance Pictures/Eagle-Lion Films Prod: Aubrey Schenck Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: John C. Higgins, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg Ed: Fred Allen Phot: John Alton Art Dir: Edward C. Jewell Mus: Paul Sawtell
Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder, Wallace Ford, June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, Jane Randolph, Art Smith