T-Men is one of those semi-documentary films (like Call Northside 777) that brown noses the feds, but viewers expecting an over-staged presentation of federal prowess will be surprised. These “semi-documentary” films are usually not my bag, but this one is seriously dark and downright ruthless in parts. It also never romanticizes the life of a U.S. Treasury agent. It does quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a fair amount of newsreel propaganda and even a “public service announcement” from the Secretary of Treasury acting as prologue, but T-Men feels way more like a brooding underworld noir than stiff government kitsch.
The film throws two Treasury agents, Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) and Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) undercover to bust a ring of counterfeiters. During their excursion to the underworld they bear witness to some incredibly brutal acts ranging from beatings to murder. O’Brien and Genaro manage to infiltrate the counterfeit ring, but the gang is quickly suspicious of them. In one truly shocking moment, O’Brien must stand by silently as Genaro is shot in cold blood. From there, the film becomes even more gruesome and dark in its depiction of the unrelenting world of crime.
Throughout the film, the life of a Treasury agent is depicted as lonely, anxious, and unsung. This stark lifestyle conflicts with the film’s drab narration, which almost feels insulting to these hard-luck bastards we’re watching being tossed around by the gang’s muscle. One of the toughest s.o.b’s in the counterfeit ring is Moxie, played by Charles McGraw, who had a brief but memorable appearance as one of the hitmen in The Killers. Moxie is as cruel as they come. When we first meet him, he threatens to break O’Brien’s fingers. From there he boxes his ears and fries someone alive in a steam bath. Uptight government hand job, T-Men is not.
John Alton’s brilliant camerawork is certainly the highlight of the film. His light and dark craftwork is uncanny in noir and T-Men contains some of his strongest visuals (that I’ve seen yet, that is). Shadows are used to transform men into phantoms and light is used to remind us that they’re still human. The players are framed within the natural landscapes of the Detroit and Los Angeles to create a consuming effect that’s really successfully. Aside from the story, Alton’s camera is the catalyst for suspense and heartache in T-Men. Flat out, it’s incredible work that shows the power of light and dark in reflecting noir’s recurring themes.
T-Men was made the same year as Raw Deal, also made by Anthony Mann and Alton and starring O’Keefe. While I really dug that film, T-Men is one I’m going to revisit again and again. The tightly wound story, Alton’s stunning camerawork, and O’Keefe’s devil-may-care undercover guise make for a perfect gangster picture. Not to mention some of the most ruthless hoods this side of darkness.