' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: T-Men (1947)

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: T-Men (1947)

The first thing you might notice about Anthony Mann’s “T-Men” (1947) is the narration. Many noirs have narration, of course, usually from an omniscient viewpoint, the main character looking back after the fact to bemoan his/her bad luck. The narrator in “T-Men” (Reed Hadley), though, is not the main character, and he is not bemoaning bad luck but celebrating the hard work of men who brought the bad luck upon the sort of rabble who might bemoan it. “T-Men” is set post-WWII, as most noirs were, but you could have clipped this narrator straight from a WWII propaganda movie. The voiceover might feel intrusive, but that’s part of the point, this guy butting in over and over to sing the praises of law enforcement. And despite an occasional scene of over-insistent patriotic bureaucracy, like a Treasury Agent scolding a cashier for accepting a phony bill, Mann doesn’t so much sing in tune with his narrator as use him for an effective counterpoint.

The T-Men are two treasury agents, Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), going undercover by posing as former members of the Green River Gang to bust a counterfeiting ring stretching from Detroit to Los Angeles. Each character is introduced taking the job, their backstories kept almost entirely out of the picture, allowing for no communication with the outside world except clandestine meetings with their superiors to exchange information. “Don’t forget,” O’Brien says at the outset of their job when Genaro mention his wife, “you’re not married. You’ve been divorced for reasons of duty.” It’s a demarcation line, and one Mann memorably brings to life in a later scene where Genaro, in the presence of another counterfeiter, the so-called Schemer (Wallace Ford), runs into his wife Mary (June Lockhart). If her friend doesn’t realize what’s happening, Mary plays along without skipping a beat, feigning as if she has no idea who Tony is and her friend has gone crazy from the heat. It might be a means to increase tension on Tony, but it plays as a cruel depriving of their love, filmed in close-ups where the love in her Mary’s cruelly gets no reciprocation.

O’Brien, on the other hand, is entirely devoid of personal attachments, and O’Keefe plays the part as if sliding into this gangster persona is the easiest thing in the world, chewing gum like it’s his madman method. In a scene at the Club Trinidad, when duty calls for him to flirt with a showgirl charging people to take their photographs, he comes across like a true male lout in giving her crap as he uncovers the information he seeks, like he’s not just trying to unearth that information but getting his rocks off doing so. It’s one of many moments scattered throughout where it becomes difficult to tell O’Brien apart from his alter ego, which Mann brings home in a suspenseful sequence set around a sink, where O’Brien is trying to retrieve a nameplate that has been left for him under the basin without the hood on the sink’s other side noticing, their side-by-side reflections in the mirror evoking a split personality.

Because Mann eschews soul-searching conversations between his two undercover men, this means the voiceover exists as the only window into their thoughts. And no matter how dire the situation gets, Hadley’s narration remains not so much upbeat as adamant, doggedly reminding us of the men’s heroism, which only renders his words more and more discordant as the T-Men plunge deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld, the way they look and what they are made to undergo squaring less and less with the patriotic wrapping. You see it most forcefully in the scene where O’Brien is forced to stand and watch as Tony, his real identity being outed, is shot and killed, as brutal as it is sudden, and which we see entirely through O’Brien’s reaction, the camera refusing to cut away, underlining the pressure he remains under not to react to lest he also be comprised. As Tony’s lifeless body falls, O’Brien’s head tilts down to watch and his eyes vanish into the darkness, as if his quick moment of mourning is over and now it’s back to work.

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