T-Men (1947)

T-Men (1947) is a tough and exciting undercover semi-documentary style film noir directed by Anthony Mann, starring Dennis O'Keefe in his breakthrough film noir role.

This classic film noir from 1947 follows two Treasury Department agents, Dennis O'Brien and Tony Genaro, as they go undercover to break up a counterfeiting ring. The film provides a glimpse into the post-World War II era of the United States and speaks to several aspects of 1940s American society.

One of the main themes of the film is the idea that the American dream is attainable through hard work and honesty. This idea is represented in the characters of O'Brien and Genaro, who are portrayed as hard-working and dedicated agents who are willing to risk their lives to protect their country. The film also portrays a strong sense of patriotism, which was common in the post-World War II era.

Another theme of the film is the idea that crime does not pay, which is a common message in many film noir movies. The counterfeiting ring that O'Brien and Genaro are trying to bust is shown to be ruthless and violent, and the film suggests that their criminal enterprise is ultimately doomed to fail.

Opening this highly entertaining item of Propaganda Noir is none other than top T-Man and T-General, the Big-T himself, Ultimate Treasury Agent Elmer Lincoln Irey. 

Top T-Man Elmer Lincoln Irey in T-Men (1947)

T-Men also portrays a dark and gritty vision of American society, which was a common trait of film noir during this era. The urban landscape of the film is full of shadows and corruption, and the characters are often shown as being driven by greed and lust for power.

You can tell T-Men is classic film noir, because it demonstrates at every turn the greatest possible use of non-widescreen photography, and black and white film. It exemplifies the style, throughout, thanks here to John Alton. 

Celebrating film noir photography with John Alton shooting
T-Men (1947)

As in his other film noir work, and very much like Dennis O'Keefe and Anthony Mann's follow up to T-Men, Raw Deal (1947), T-Men visits an outstanding array of locations, mostly in the lower echelons of society, being in this case many back street locations, as well as the back streets themselves, with q few scenes being set in clubs, and memorably in a Turkish bath as well as a conclusion on board a cargo ship, with all the angles, props and variety of ascents and descents that has to offer.

Literally on top of all this, is a voiceover narration, but this story is not told by one of the characters, but effectively by Uncle Sam himself. In fact, T-Men was endorsed by the US Treasury Department itself, and its them who open the film.

As the curtain opens, the opening credits are displayed over an image of the department's seal, and then former Chief Coordinator of the department's six agencies Elmer Lincoln Irey delivers a monologue describing the objectives of those agencies and lauding their accomplishments, including the fact that of all the people currently in American prisons, 61% of them have been put there by T-Men.

Counterfeiting money in 1940s America was a serious crime that could result in significant punishment, including imprisonment and fines. During this time, the United States was involved in World War II, and the government was particularly concerned about counterfeit money because it could undermine the war effort by devaluing the currency and damaging the economy.

To combat counterfeiting, the US Secret Service, which is responsible for investigating counterfeiting cases, established a special unit called the "Counterfeit Division" in the 1940s. The division worked to identify and track down counterfeiters, and it developed a range of strategies and technologies to make it more difficult to produce fake bills.

One of the most significant developments during this time was the introduction of new security features on currency, including watermarks and special paper with embedded threads. These features made it much more difficult for counterfeiters to produce realistic-looking bills, and they helped to reduce the prevalence of counterfeiting.

Despite these efforts, however, counterfeiting remained a significant problem during the 1940s, particularly in areas with a large military presence. To combat this, the Secret Service worked closely with local law enforcement agencies and military authorities to identify and track down counterfeiters, and they used a range of investigative techniques, including undercover work and surveillance.

Card games of film noir —  T-Men (1947)

In 1947, organized gambling in America was a thriving industry, but it was also a controversial one. Gambling was legal in some states and illegal in others, and even where it was legal, it was often tightly regulated.

Las Vegas was emerging as the gambling capital of the country, with the first casinos on what would become the famous Las Vegas Strip opening in the late 1940s. These casinos, including the Flamingo, the Sands, and the Desert Inn, were owned by organized crime figures such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky.

At the same time, illegal gambling operations were also prevalent, particularly in big cities like New York and Chicago. These operations often involved bookmaking, numbers games, and other forms of betting.

In response to concerns about organized crime's involvement in gambling, Congress passed the Wire Act in 1961, which prohibited the use of telecommunication facilities for interstate or international gambling. This law was followed by the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 1992, which banned sports betting nationwide, with a few exceptions.

T-Men in their T-Tower in T-Men (1947)

Overall, while counterfeiting remained a serious problem during the 1940s, the efforts of the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies helped to significantly reduce its prevalence and protect the US economy and the war effort.

T-Men remains true to true film noir because it is always tough, a side from its few soft governmental advances and overtones. As soon as it hits the streets its tough. As soon as the first cigarettes is lit, it's tough and it continues to be tough in the bathhouses and gambling joints, and tough in the boarding houses and alleys. T-Men may propose itself as propaganda noir, but it is really an excuse for some heavy duty violence at times, thanks presumably to director Anthony Mann.

Tough on the streets — Dennis O'Keefe in
T-Men (1947)

The voiceover in this manner is not entirely necessary, but it does add the authority that any police-procedural would require, in the form of that voice that crops up every ten minutes, describing the next slice of action, as if it were being read from a police file.

This is not the melancholic voiceover of film noir, there are several types. The voiceover is melancholic at one extreme yes, offering memories of violence, loss, and guilt through first-person narrative discourse. The voiceover worked in this era to produce a newly evolved testimonial style, to a receptive audience, listening to the confession as well as watching it. But the documentary style, persistent from the newsreel, carried on delivering information, as it does here. Voiceover perhaps, but not in the film noir style, or not with film noir expectations?

Mary Meade in T-Men (1947)

As film noir did at its best, T-Men reflects the anxieties and uncertainties of the post-World War II times, as well as the moral and social values that were common during this time. It speaks to the idea that hard work and honesty can lead to success, but it also shows the dark side of American society, where crime and corruption can lead to ruin.

Streets of film noir, shot by John Alton in
T-Men (1947)

What's perfectly noir about all this is the amazing lack of sentimentality and humour. The violence is real and it's one slap in the jaw after another, to a bruising conclusion. The shadowy half-lit urban environments of film noir look great, and add to the feelings of fear and paranoia that help make films like this shriek threat loud.

It's amusing that in many film noirs the police seem to be rather ineffective, especially when compared to the press in Fritz Lang's journalistic noir movies. This is a different kind of world, in which the cops are unrelenting, organised, well-staffed and incredibly efficient. 

Dennis O'Keefe — film noir 1947

Alfred Ryder — film noir 1947

June Lockhart — film noir 1947

Wallace Ford — film noir 1947

The way that they break down clues and undertake serious legwork to crack things open is impressive, including Dennis O'Keefe's waiting 10 days in a Turkish bath. 

Dennis O'Brien: Look, I've been thinking this over. I don't go for that killing a T-Man. I don't like this set up and I don't want any part of it.

Moxie: What's the matter, you getting the wim-wams?

These real life cops are supposed to be scary. The agent's job we are told, is one of selfless duty and family sacrifice for a modest salary. These dedicated undercover agents spend countless hours on tedious research and dutiful follow-up on any and all leads ("Every angle, however slight, must be carefully checked."). 

Illegal game in T-Men film noir 1947

Both men, O'Brien and Genaro, endure huge amounts of stress and rough abuse in the line of duty, and in fact even deep into the mob he is pursuing, Dennis O'Keefe's character is still being tortured and beaten as a matter of course.

Director of photography John Alton, a name everyone down at the film noir bureau recognises and reveres, creatively experiments with high-contrast lighting to throw into focus the danger of dark alleys, crummy apartments and the other dark corners where illegal activities take place. Indeed, he kicks off the movie with some textbook film visuals when an informant named Shorty is gunned down before he can provide any information. 

Bath house scenes in
T-Men (1947)

The fantasies of film noir alternate between several poles, and one of these is the duality of cops and villains. Here both seem equally matched, so much so that Dennis O'Keefe, sometimes in a rather amusing hood's suit and tie, can infiltrate the gang and take it down from within. Often the villains win the battles in film noir, and sometimes the police seem either corrupt or useless.

Charles McGraw as Moxie in
T-Men (1947)

In T-Men, a film with way more punch than it promises, we find government agents at their most effective, willing to go through anything to protect the state it appears. There is something magical about the depths that are plumbed through the series of difficult locales, and the massive effort made by the authorities seems to do so without corrupting any of its agents; even though it outright kills one of them.

Jack Overman as Brownie in
T-Men (1947)

Incidentally, this seems like a cruel twist, as it is the agent's wife whom inadvertently betrays him, even though she does her best to save him. There is an entire story of noir in that relationship, presumably concerning how this young and widowed wife felt, with no husband and with the weight of guilt his death may have impressed upon her.   

No comments:

Post a Comment