When the trail goes cold on a counterfeit ring in Los Angeles, Treasury agents Dennis O'Brien (Dennis O'Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are called upon to infiltrate the shadowy and dangerous underworld of organized crime. Their only lead takes them to Detroit where they convince mob kingpin Carlo Vantucci of their criminal pedigree and start piling up clues to tie the Vantucci mob to the "tough, tight outfit" in L.A.
O'Brien and Genaro finally get a break when they learn a former Detroit hood – The Schemer (Wallace Ford) – is on the outs with the syndicate and has been demoted to pushing the fake paper in Los Angeles. Not wasting a second, O'Brien heads to L.A. and tracks down his cigar-smoking target, quickly duping the counterfeiter into being introduced to the "higher-ups". But the deeper O'Brien penetrates the organization, the more harrowing the mission becomes for him and fellow T-Man Genaro, with their every move being scrutinized and carrying the risk of deadly exposure.
A major box office success upon its release, T-Men holds a special place in film noir canon not only as director Anthony Mann's breakout film, but as the initial pairing of the filmmaker and cinematographer John Alton ((He Walked By Night). Like none before them, their combination of highly stylized camera set-ups, along with the brilliant uses of light and shadows, created the gritty realism and visual tension that made their crime thrillers popular with critics and movie patrons alike.
Bring up the topic of film noir and movies like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Sunset Boulevard, and The Asphalt Jungle immediately spring to mind. Yet beneath those A-list titles lies a veritable treasure trove of B-grade noir pictures that are vigorously championed by the classics cognoscenti but unknown to most casual fans. T-Men is one such film. Though wildly successful at the time of its release in 1947 (it raked in more than $2 million), this tough, searing crime thriller - like many independent films of the period - soon lapsed into obscurity, where it has languished for decades. Yet thanks to a spectacular restoration care of Classicflix, T-Men muscles its way into the spotlight once more, where it hopefully will gain the recognition - and lasting traction - it so richly deserves.
Count me among the throngs of film noir fans previously unfamiliar with T-Men, but after finally viewing this taut, often riveting crime flick, I wondered how it managed to fly under my radar all these years. While the story may be formulaic and a bit cliched, the direction by Anthony Mann and exquisite cinematography by Oscar-winner John Alton elevate this low-budget production into the realm of high art. Mann would achieve his greatest success in the early 1950s helming a series of westerns, a few of which star James Stewart, but his fluent command of noir’s unique cinematic language belies his inexperience with the genre. With Alton’s help, he bolts out of the gate, firing off a continual barrage of breathtaking images that dazzle the eyes and inspire both admiration and awe.
The “T” in T-Men stands for treasury, and the terse screenplay by John C. Higgins methodically chronicles in a semi-documentary manner the investigation into a labyrinthian counterfeiting syndicate by undercover U.S. Department of Treasury agents. As the film opens, we’re lectured by Elmer Lincoln Irey, an actual treasury department official who led the investigation that ultimately nabbed mobster Al Capone on tax evasion charges. Irey soberly lays out the department’s various areas of expertise and explains T-Men will dramatize a real-life composite case to show how the agents ply their trade and the division’s disparate units intertwine. That case is the Shanghai Paper Case, which consumes the lives and energies of t-men Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), who don aliases in an effort to infiltrate and expose an elusive international counterfeiting ring that’s flooding the American market with illegal currency.
What follows is a meticulous, often dangerous, and always tense investigation. Thugs, molls, oily intermediaries, and suave kingpins populate the tale, and plenty of fist fights, shootings, tough talk, and authentic locations punctuate it. This is a macho world, and women only flit on the fringes of it. If you’re looking for a slinky femme fatale who seduces and betrays one of the heroes, you won’t find her here. Instead, scenes in steamy Turkish baths, dingy hotel rooms, smoky backroom casinos, and dark alleys dominate the proceedings, and they all are swathed in lush shadows, harsh light, and hazy grays.
T-Men packs a decent narrative punch, ramping up suspense and sprinkling in numerous violent confrontations as it builds to a memorable climax, but the story takes a back seat to the film’s dazzling style. Almost every shot is visually arresting, making it hard at times to concentrate on the plot’s finer points. So many scenes deserve to be savored so we can drink in all the details and analyze the intricate setups. Low angles, high angles, odd perspectives, incredible depth, extreme close-ups, myriad locations, and a plethora of reflections keep the eye continually engaged and stimulated. Mann and Alton boldly manipulate light and shadow, varying their intensity and experimenting with natural elements to create an off-kilter aura of unease that they masterfully sustain throughout the picture. A face plunging into the light from a sea of blackness, a shadowy silhouette framed against a blazing backdrop, a scene shot from underneath a lamp with a naked bulb the only source of light (see photo below), and an unforgettable showdown in a sticky, steamy sauna are only a few of the many indelible moments that comprise this film.
Authenticity is also heightened because of the relative anonymity of the cast. O’Keefe, who had previously toiled in countless films as a lightweight second lead, would go on to play many tough-monkey roles, but T-Men gave him that breakout opportunity. His rumpled good looks, coarse, two-pack-a-day voice, and everyman physique fit the image of a cynical federal investigator like a glove, and we can relate to him because he seems like one of us. Ryder makes a fine foil, but two excellent supporting actors, Charles McGraw as a ruthless henchman and Wallace Ford as a slimy, pudgy go-between who plays both sides against the middle, grab focus whenever they’re on screen. A young June Lockhart only has a single line, but gets two beautiful close-ups that make her brief appearance memorable as well.
T-Men was Mann’s 13th feature, yet it’s the first film that really shows off his capabilities. It also cemented his reputation as a director worthy of big-time projects, and proves talent, vision, and a willingness to go out on an artistic limb can enhance a pedestrian story and transform a low-budget B movie into something special. Though T-Men doesn’t possess the cachet of other, better known film noir titles, it runs visual circles around most of them, and in the process raises the genre’s bar. Once you see it, you won’t forget it.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
T-Men arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. A gorgeous 24-page booklet printed on high-quality paper featuring a lengthy making-of essay by Anthony Mann expert Max Alvarez, full-color lobby card and poster reproductions, and several black-and-white scene and production stills is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is uncompressed mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Newly restored for this release, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of T-Men from Classicflix looks like a million bucks. John Alton should have received an Oscar nomination for his artistic and striking cinematography, and this superior rendering of his work shines a glaring spotlight on the Academy’s oversight. Excellent clarity and contrast and a well-integrated grain structure bring to life the gorgeous photography, which is distinguished by deep, inky blacks, stark whites, and marvelous shadow delineation. Reflections are abundant - in puddles, on shiny tables and phone booth glass, even on glossy metal lockers - and all of them are crisp and vivid. Wispy elements like steam and wafting cigarette smoke are well defined, the texture of suit jackets and woven tablecloths are distinct, and the patterns on wallpaper and an array of loud ties are easy to discern. Alton tested the limits of low light, but this transfer never compromises his innovative, often breathtaking compositions. Finely detailed close-ups showcase the rugged, chiseled faces of the tough guys and aged character actors, and though a few shots appear slightly soft or a bit rough, including one close-up of June Lockhart, most of this presentation is as smooth as silk. Nary a nick or speck sullies the beautifully restored source material, and no digital doctoring could be detected. Once again, Classicflix scores with a top-notch transfer that lavishes an underrated film noir with the loving care it deserves.
The uncompressed mono track is quite good, too, supplying clear, well-modulated sound that’s devoid of any age-related imperfections like hiss, pops, and crackles. Even quiet moments are clean, allowing such subtle nuances as ticking clocks and the snaps of billiard balls against a pool cue to make a distinct impression. Sonic accents like fisticuffs and gunfire are crisp as well, and a wide dynamic scale handles the highs and lows of Paul Sawtell’s effective yet undistinguished music score without issue. For the most part, all the dialogue is easy to comprehend, yet even though a few exchanges sound a bit hollow and garbled, they can’t detract from the quality of this remastered 70-year-old track. The only Oscar nomination T-Men received was for its sound recording, and this transfer honors engineer Jack Whitney’s work.
Classicflix puts together a fine supplemental package that appropriately salutes this important, yet too often neglected film noir.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Alan K. Rode knows his stuff, especially when it comes to film noir, and his T-Men audio commentary proves it. With insight and panache, Rode examines T-Men from every angle, calling the opening sequence “one of the most emblematic scenes in all of film noir,” and dissecting the innovative technique of director Anthony Mann, who “refused to default to pedestrian camera setups.” He also notes how the film juggles multiple genres, buoyed the careers of Mann and cinematographer John Alton (who would work together five more times), depicts violence in a non-gratuitous manner, and doesn’t include any romantic subplots. He even shares a few recorded remarks from actress June Lockhart, who amusingly recalls how Mann dissed her after she completed her brief scene in the movie. In addition, Rode provides background information on almost every member of the cast and crew, and never hides his enthusiasm for this crime classic. Anyone who appreciates film noir will enjoy this involving and spirited track.
Featurette: “Into the Darkness: Mann, Alton, and T-Men” (HD, 11 minutes) - Rode returns, along with a team of established critics and craftsmen, to honor the collaboration between director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton and analyze the stunning images they created In T-Men. Rode says “Mann and Alton went together with film noir like ham and eggs” and Alton “changed the way movies looked,” and by examining lighting techniques, camera angles, and the pair’s innovative style, he and his crew inspire renewed appreciation for their work. Plenty of film clips and photos illustrate their points and enhance this classy, informative featurette.
Featurette: “A Director’s Daughter: Nina Mann Remembers” (HD, 9 minutes) - In this touching and surprisingly emotional piece, Anthony Mann’s daughter recalls how her father combined storytelling with psychology and focused on loners throughout his underrated film career. She also recaps his difficult childhood (largely due to his strict and conservative theosophical upbringing) and shares intimate memories of him as a dad. Yet because she was so young when Mann died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of 60, she admits she searches for him through his films.
T-Men is a lean, mean, and altogether riveting film noir that’s been rescued from obscurity and given the red carpet Blu-ray treatment by Classicflix. Casual noir fans might not be familiar with director Anthony Mann’s breakout picture, but this low-budget, independent crime thriller eclipses many better known movies, and stands as one of the toughest and most artistic entries in a cluttered genre. A terrific restoration that showcases the film’s brilliant visual style, top-notch audio, a few classy supplements, and handsome special edition packaging make this release a must for noir and classics aficionados, and anyone who appreciates fine filmmaking. Highly Recommended.