G Men (1935)

G Men (1935) is a Proto-Noir Post-Code Warner Bros. crime and police procedural action film starring James Cagney, Ann Dvorak, Margaret Lindsay and Lloyd Nolan in his film debut. 

G Men, one of the top-grossing films of 1935 was a shot at portraying crime successfully within the confines of the newly enforced Hayes Code, by creatively casting crime favourite James Cagney in a non-criminal role -- in this case supporting the law and maintaining the action by becoming a federal agent.

The supporting cast features Robert Armstrong and Barton MacLane and the surrounding tension arises from the fact that Cagney's character, Brick Davis changes sides and bides farewell to the mob boss who financed his education as a lawyer, to become a full on nark, a fed or what passed for it in the long-past and unarmed days of 1935.

When he changes sides, Brick Davis travels to Washington, D.C. to begin his training. A mutual dislike forms straight away between himself and his instructor, Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong), which subsides into an easier and more cooperative relationship as time passes, but not before McCord openly mocks and derides Davis' attempts at training.

James Cagney switches sides in G Men (1935)

Brick Davis though is attracted to McCord's sister Kay (Margaret Lindsay), which strengthens his determination to remain passive despite McCord's efforts to wind him him up.

Barton McLane in G Men (1935)

G Men was made as part of a straight up effort by Warner Bros. to react to what political and business leaders were moaning about was a trend of glorifying criminals in the early 1930s gangster film genre.

It's what you'd call a 'post-Code' film — a picture produced after the enforcement of the Production Code Administration in mid-1934, when Hollywood studios were newly obliged to abide by the rules of the Production Code. 

One of the strictest rules was that movies could not glorify crime, and to Warner Bros., producers of the best gangster films in the business — and who had arguably glorified crime throughout the early 1930s— this was potentially bad news. 

Here in G-Men, James Cagney was able to share his characteristic energy, charm, and fast-action fun, but on the side of law and order. 

This moment of change did coincide with a new era in the FBI’s own history. The Bureau had been established in 1908 and was known simply as the Bureau of Investigation and it was in 1935, the year of G-Men that the word Federal was added. 

It was not at this time a part of the law-enforcement community but  focused entirely on the investigation of crimes and crime scenes. Its specialities were scientific analysis and lab work, and its agents did not carry firearms. 

Ann Dvorak in G Men (1935)

That all changed in 1924 when J. Edgar Hoover was appointed director of the agency, and he brought a more aggressive approach to its activities.

In the early 1930s the combined privations of Prohibition and the Great Depression spawned a populist and diverse wave of crime across the country, Hoover began a campaign to promote a public image of the Bureau as a powerful crime-fighting force. 

Warner Bros., the blue-collar movie studio which supported FDR and his administration was eager to cooperate with this campaign.

G Men is then is a bringing together of Hoover’s agenda with the effective moviemaking machine of warner Bros.

Although the gangster films were presented as moral indictments of organised crime where the criminal protagonist inevitably died, they had still in the skilful hands of Warner Bros. more than any other studio nevertheless depicted a life of freedom, power and luxury enjoyed by gangsters in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the more major unregulated style of stock market banking practised only a few years before. 

Foremost of these films were Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932), and perhaps the most famous, The Public Enemy (1931), in which James Cagney portrayed street tough Tom Powers, the role that launched him to stardom. 

James Cagney — tough guy time in G Men (1935)

What was often seen to be objectionable about these films was that law enforcement was usually portrayed as either impotent in the face of crime, or, as with Public Enemy, somewhat like a derelict and absentee father shirking his duty. 

Based on this interpretation, G Men supplanted the criminal protagonist with the heroic federal police officer, to see what could be done to maintain the fun of crime, while blasting the premise of any attractiveness or freedom attached to it.

Feds in the lab — obliged to crowd into shot in G Men (1935)

Criminals in fact were not presented as free at all, rather the victims of their own self imposed moral cages, generally an ugly bunch, and generally at the quick mercy of the police, at least when the authorities could get guns to try and handle it.

Most prints of this film include a brief prologue added at the beginning for the 1949 re-release on the FBI's 25th anniversary. This unusual scene depicts a senior agent (played by David Brian) introducing a screening of the film to a group of FBI recruits so that they may learn about the Bureau's history. 

This fictional documentary style procedural blandishment plants G Men imperfectly at the change of the decade mark between the 1940s and 1950s, when government and law enforcement messaging were at their bluntest as they elbowed their way with a somewhat crass authority into the evening's entertainment, attempting propagandised glimpses of how cool the cops are, and how morally caged the bad guys were.

James Cagney turned out to be his tough and wise-cracking self whichever side of the law he was on

William Harrigan plays a soft-hearted gangster who helps Jimmy out and pays for it in the end, but tends to steal the scenes he's in en route. Ever-typed heavy Barton MacLane chew hard and fast on everyone else as the main villain. Robert Armstrong is the training superior agent that rides Cagney hard but in the end decides he's a good egg. 

Margaret Lindsay plays Armstrong's sister and is one of two women that fall for Jimmy in this picture. The other is Ann Dvorak, who shines brightly despite an initial scene in which she's badly lip-synced and dances awkwardly like something from the sickly side of the farmyard.

While in no way a film noir to speak of, G Men (1935) does signal some of the more staid aspects of the forthcoming 1940s, which got to grips with police procedural in the fulsome mode of that decade's dark side, when possible.

The trouble with the 1940s was that its dark side was a place of fantasy, where wild and unbelievable crimes took place in often socially isolated settings, in darkened marital mansions and in the crazed and deranged fantasies of outsiders, loners and others isolated from the otherwise full on Americana.

Fantasy is at the same time the opposite of police procedural, which is more a style focused on light and reason. For this reason we can enjoy G Men (1935) as it relates to the general progression of cinematic storytelling, using crime and police detection, and morality all as stopping points from which much deeper and more nuanced film noir productions could emerge. 

Perhaps for example, William Keighley helped create some of the basics of the Henry Hathaway semi-documentary school of filmmaking with G Men (1935).  In  G Men, the FBI is presented as a new institution and we see Cagney going through his training there. Both this film and William Keighley's later full-fat-film noir The Street With No Name (1948) feature Lloyd Nolan in quite similar roles as an FBI agent.

Something that became a staple of police procedural film noir in the 1940s and 50s, was the use of technology to fight crime, which ain't spared here neither. As in The Street With No Name, there's an emphasis is on fingerprint identification as an FBI specialty and two sets of fingerprints are projected on a screen, and then superimposed to show that they're identical. Projection is both a fascinating technical crime fighting tool, and a strong cinematic storytelling device for the very reason that projection itself, is the supporting technology of the cinema in total.

Both G Men and The Street With No Name feature a scene in which the hero impresses other men by a boxing match, and in both films, the boxing leads to some male bonding.

The way that James Cagney's character stands between the mob which controlled his childhood and the FBI which now controls his adulthood, does in a way anticipate the undercover characters of the Henry Hathaway style.

James Cagney does not really go undercover as such in G Men, although Keighley's later little belter Bullets or Ballots (1936) does feature cop Edward G. Robinson deep in undercover action.

G Men (1935) is sometimes cited as a turning point in the history of the gangster film, when Warner Bros. tried to give up celebrating the gangsters themselves. There is a focus then on the federal agents who track the gangsters down and the whole schtick is that it's they who are the heroes. And so, a style is born.

G Men (1935) at Wikipedia


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