Tuesday, November 11, 2008

T - Men (1947)

Director Anthony Mann’s 1947 breakout film T-Men duped me, but that’s what he had in mind. Deception is the theme that resonates throughout the story of Mann’s film and he cleverly delivers that premise of duplicity right into the lap of the audience. Mann sets up the viewer from the opening frames of the film by showing a stern and official statement from the Secretary of the Treasury regarding the money filmed, under their permission, in the movie. Mann then introduces wide shot of the Washington Monument which pans to the Treasury Department building. A narrator gives a brief historical background of the Treasury Department over these images which eventually lead into the office of Elmer Lincoln Irey. Responsible for bringing down Al Capone with Frank J. Wilson and Elliot Ness, Irey was also one of the lead investigators on the Lindberg kidnapping case among other high profile ones in a long illustrious career as a Treasury Agent (T-Man), coordinator of the Treasury Department's law enforcement agency and U.S. Secret Service operation overseer. Filmed sitting at his giant desk with the Washington D.C. skyline in the window behind him, Irey stoically explains that the case we are about to see is a composite of several counterfeiting cases the Treasury Department cracked over the years. With such a beginning we’re set up for all the makings of a by the book documentary style film. T-Men however is a surprisingly gritty and suspenseful work containing some of the most striking and impressive visuals in film noir history.

From Irey’s office we cut to Los Angeles where a man in a trench coat lurks in black slabs of shadow. Human forms are dwarfed by asymmetrical shots of stark buildings shrouded in the dark of night. A nefarious figure in an alley is uniquely framed by the camera between the legs of a man who guns him down. These sets of dynamic shots are beautifully jarring compared to the formal introduction of the film and also a key indicator that what we are about to watch unfold is certainly not a dry documentary style film. The murdered man, we later learn, was a Treasury Department informant set to turn over a paper sample used by a top counterfeiting ring. This opening sequence sets the stage for our story of a mafia counterfeiting operation and two T-Men going undercover to bust it up before their true identities are discovered and they wind up deader than Presidents on dollar bills.Treasury Agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) are put on the case of cracking the major counterfeiting ring that spans between the mob in Los Angeles and Detroit. O’Brien and Genaro are assigned to begin in Detroit where they research the local crime history and create their undercover identities of two hoods from a defunct motor city gang. With their new identities, flashy suits and help from the local police (who “legitimize” their criminality with the local hoods), O’Brien and Genaro sell their parts convincingly enough to get in on the ground floor of the Vantucci mob. This crew directly benefits from the L.A. based counterfitting production among other illegal enterprises.

After getting the lowdown on the Vantucci mob’s operation, O’Brien goes to Los Angeles to track down a man named The Schemer (Wallace Ford) who coordinates the fraudulent currency between L.A. and Detroit while Genaro stays behind keeping tabs on the Vantuccis. O’Brien tracks down The Schemer and infiltrates the counterfeiting ring in Los Angeles with a counterfeit bill of his own supplied by the Treasury Department. The engraving on O’Brien’s phony bill is of the highest quality but the paper is sub par. The Schemer’s counterfeiting connections have aesthetically inferior photoengraved bills but their paper is nearly indistinguishable from real U.S. currency. O’Brien uses these elements to bargain with the counterfeiters: his superior engraved plates coupled with their high quality paper to make the best fake bills possible. O’Brien gets to meet with the higher ups in the ring with their expectations being he will deliver them his superb plates. At that time O’Brien and his fellow T-Men will stop the presses on the fraudulent operation.

O’Brien and Genaro’s undercover operation is jeopardized on several occasions as their true identities are repeatedly on the verge of being discovered by the mob. Both men play their parts well, but The Schemer becomes suspicious after he and Genaro run into the agent’s wife and her friend at the market one day. Genaro and his wife (June Lockhart) awkwardly pretend not to know one another. The Schemer however detects the strange exchange between the two and tells the mob bosses there’s something fishy about Genaro. The Schemer is partially motivated to do so for self preservation as he has somewhat fallen out of favor with the mob and believes they may kill him. His paranoia was also the impetus for him keeping a coded book in which he recorded all the mob’s illegal activities. This book was a potential bargaining chip for The Schemer in case he got into dire straights with the mob or the authorities. Genaro and O’Brien learn of The Schemer’s book and exploit his paranoia in an attempt to get their hands on the book and the invaluable information it contains. The plans however go awry for our undercover T-Men and bodies on both sides of the law start dropping as the stakes increase.

For much of the film Anthony Mann focuses on the characters of O’Brien and Genaro; specifically each embracing their new identities. While deceit and duplicity are necessary means to breaking the case and keeping them alive, O’Brien and Genaro seem to adopt their roles so thoroughly, the viewer begins to question their lives outside of their undercover characters. When we’re first shown O’Brien he’s on an airplane headed to a briefing in Washington D.C. The woman beside him, wearing a feathered hat, falls asleep on his shoulder. The feathers keep tickling his face and a stewardess quietly questions him if he wants her to wake up the woman beside him. O’Brien shakes his head no and humorously pantomimes a request for a pair of scissors to supposedly clip the feathers that are bothering him. Showing an affable side, the brief scene is placed as a stark juxtaposition to the O’Brien we see for the rest of the film. The undercover O’Brien is a tough, streetwise, cunning and violent force. Mann seems to practically deny their humanity outside of their undercover identities. Our introduction to Tony Genaro’s character takes place on a train (heading to the same briefing as O’Brien) as he carefully sets a small standing frame containing a picture of his wife before beginning his paperwork. His wife is not an extension or indicator of Tony’s humanity. She simply becomes a plot device, adding to the sum of duplicity, double-crossing and corruption in the underworld in which they now operate and live. At times Genaro and especially O’Brien seem to relish the perversity of their lives as mobsters. Mann’s purpose in this approach leaves the viewer unsettled, anxious, and feeling hoodwinked without any stock or convenient emotional connections to the protagonists. Mann however keeps the audience off-balance not only by his narrative choices, but his stellar visuals helmed by the director of photography John Alton.

The overall look of the film is the real standout star. John Alton had a true gift for incorporating a tense dichotomy of light and dark in the same frame. His use of shadow often changes men into menacing silhouettes. Alton also integrated daring strokes of light against these black figures giving us just glimpse enough of their eyes, for example, to be reminded of their humanity (or lack of it). Alton was truly a master of the fast fall-off lighting effect. His expertise in this area yields stunning contrasts from the precisely lit characters to the near all-encompassing atmosphere of shadow in which they maneuver. Mann and Alton continue to keep the audience off guard by using oblique and unusual angles to film the action. John Alton excels in framing and positioning characters inside the natural landscapes of the city and other surroundings resulting in dynamic shots. He also had unique ways of creating tension simply by positioning the camera in low and unorthodox angles. One such instance occurs when O’Brien is quickly trying to recover one of the counterfeit plates he’s stashed under a bathroom sink while one of the mob cronies is at the same basin washing up. Time is of the essence as he literally has minutes to recover it, but if the goon sees him grab the plate his cover will be blown. Instead of perhaps a conventional medium shot depicting the action, Alton places the camera at the feet of the men pivoted up to reveal the bottom of the sink. This angle shows the plate’s hiding spot and O’Brien’s hands nervously fumbling to grab the plate while the casual banter between the two is taking place off camera. The anxiety and stress of the situation is exponentially magnified by Alton’s simple yet brilliant decision of camera placement. He also utilizes deep focus shots, reflective surfaces, camera movement and many other techniques masterfully. If someone asked me to choose one example of what film noir looked like, I would likely sit them down and show them T-Men. Aesthetically it’s simply astonishing.

T-Men however isn’t flawless. There are a few holes in the plot and I found the narrator’s voice-overs distracting toward the finale just to name a few. Despite some shaky areas in the story, Dennis O’Brien’s standout performance truly helped to compensate for the detractions. Despite the aforementioned weaknesses, director Anthony Mann adroitly stays on task with a nice narrative pace and quality exposition. What puts T-Men in a whole different stratosphere is Alton’s photography. The man had a true gift for visual composition, lighting and of course camerawork. If anything the visuals alone secure T-Men among the elite titles in the film noir cannon.