Wednesday, January 24, 2007

T-MEN (1947)

So many of the best film noirs [yeah, it should be films noir, but to me, the phrase "film noir" is a singular noun] were B-films, and there must be a reason for that; maybe the fact that noirs, in both looks and tone, were pretty much the exact opposite of the kinds of movies mainstream Hollywood was producing, and that shadows and darkness could cover up cheap sets. At any rate, this movie from the Poverty Row unit Eagle-Lion is definitely among the top rank of noirs, though it's been largely unsung until its recent release on DVD. Directed by Anthony Mann just after RAILROADED, this documentary-style film (complete with voice-over narration) follows two Treasury agents (Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder) on assignment to crack a major West Coast counterfeiting ring. The two create personas as the last free members of a jailed Detroit gang and they spend some time setting up their backstories by getting in good with a slimy thug named Vantucci (Anton Kosta, doing a great job creating a memorable character in just a few scenes) before heading out to Los Angeles. Armed with almost perfect plates (the work of an arrested crook), they're looking to infiltrate the gang that is using almost perfect paper for their counterfeit cast. Their first contact is a mostly washed-up guy known as the Schemer (Wallace Ford, also giving an excellent, fleshed-out performance) who leads them to a bunch of middlemen (including one woman). The agents make some progress to a point, until their covers almost gets blown and they must race against time when they realize that the gang's chief engraver can identify their plates. The acting here is quite good all around from leads to bits, including June Lockhart in a brief scene as Ryder's wife who, realizing that Ryder is incognito, tries to perform damage control when a family friend blithely chats him up in front of the thugs. Mann does wonders with the shadowy noir look, aided by cinematographer John Alton, using contrasting darkness and light, odd angles, and deep focus; one standout scene has a character facing death in a steamroom. Overall, this may be the least B-looking B-movie I've ever seen. Highly recommended. Though Mann was best known for noirs and westerns, he did a wide assortment of films (THE GLENN MILLER STORY, FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) later for bigger studios. [DVD]

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