Written by John C. Higgins
Directed by Anthony Mann
Two Treasury Board inspectors, Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro (Dennis O’Keef and Alfred Ryder, respectively), are sent to Detroit for undercover duty that the Board hopes will smash a nationwide counterfeiting operation. After adopting aliases and studying the Detroit crime scene, they make their way to Motown and, under the guise of former members of a now-defunct gang, infiltrate a high-end gangster’s outfit pretending to look for jobs. Upon learning that The Schemer (Wallace Ford), next in line in the food chain, operates out of Los Angeles, the duo split up with Dennis flying off to the West Coast to pursue the investigation. Of course, the closer the undercover T-Men get to the bottom of the operation, the greater the risk to their mission as well as their very lives.
A long forgotten sub-genre of film noir, one that may sound like a joke at first but really did exist, is the docu-noir. These pictures tell stories that pay heed to several of the genre’s tropes while injecting a dose of reality through plot points or visualization techniques. The story may be based on an actual event that made the headlines not long before production and, in the hands of a capable director, is told via a documentary filmmaking style. In the case of Anthony Mann’s T-Men, much of the action is accompanied by newscast-like narration, and a few scenes were shot at the Treasury Board in Washington, such as the first, in which a representative of the Board, sitting at his desk, dryly reads off his department’s five primary branches and what duties each performs. From there, the story hops from locale to locale, as equally dry narration sometimes fills the viewer in on details the director does not communicate visually while other times cumbersomely describing exactly what is happening on screen.
Movies that meld together fiction and fact as explicitly as T-Men are no longer made. In that respect, the film is something of a time capsule, a curious look into an extinct sub-genre that only caught on for a brief period. Audiences prefer to know what it is they are watching, be it a purely fictional tale, an adaptation of a real life event, or a pure documentary. For the modern viewer, the effect can be strange, with time required for the movie’s slightly alienating structure to fully sink in. There are several instances in Mann’s film when both are literally happening at the same time. Explanations of what the Treasury Board sets out to accomplish as well as scenes filmed in and around its walls are easier to digest however than the ill-conceived narration. More than once, critics and savvy moviegoers have thrown darts at certain films for clumsily adding unnecessary narration that fails to add anything of significance to the overall story. “Show, don’t tell” is a criticism some may have heard before and that complaint can be easily aimed at T-Men, certainly in the first half when the narration seems omnipresent. Said voiceover is especially guilty when explaining what two characters are doing or talking about, while the viewer watches them do or talk about it.
The worst that can be said about Mann’s picture, however, is that it fails to completely engage or bring much of note to the genre. The lukewarm reaction to the story can be a product of having already seen a bevy of movies with similar stories, some of which proved more adventurous and tried new things. T-Men‘s story isn’t poor; it simply doesn’t elicit much imagination. Stories of undercover cops or investigators of any type are a dime a dozen, so whipping up a fresh spin is no simple task, but adding a few documentary-style touches is insufficient to creating a new dynamic to a story that, at its core, is not very inspiring. As far as the plot is concerned, most of it is par for the course, the script basically coasting while Mann does his best to inject some energy.
Occasionally, T-Men features some pertinent moments, reveling in details of how the protagonists go about preparing and performing their duties, such as when studiously reading newspaper clippings at a library before heading off to Detroit. On a related note, even though the story lacks a certain creative ambition, T-Men works as a procedural of sorts, offering interesting tidbits of information about what tools and practices were used at the time to produce counterfeit bills. Characters will discuss the quality of the paper or the sort of pressings required to pull off the deed, for example. Viewers even get a sneak peak into a laboratory in which specialists study counterfeit bills. By no means does the film go into painstaking detail about the procedure (the studio would have never accepted that) but the filmmakers do pay attention to some of the details involved.
On other occasions, Mann finds that special spark of gumption and concocts memorable images. The montage sequence when O’Brien searches for The Schemer through Los Angeles’ numerous bathhouses is evocative for its dreamlike qualities, what with O’Brien tiring out amidst all the hazy steam. Another effective scene involving a bathhouse is when the Los Angeles branch of the counterfeiting operation deems The Schemer a liability and sends in one of its heavies (played by Charles McGraw, built like a titan) to liquidate him. Mann and his cinematographer Johan Alton, who also shot The Amazing Mr. X, have an extremely good working relationship in T-Men, upgrading a number of scenes from perfunctory to thrilling, even invigorating. If anything, they are the film’s two stars, not Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who are both serviceable if unspectacular.
T-Men is nowhere near the top of the list of Anthony Mann’s pictures fans should seek out. Both Border Incident and Stranger in the Night are far superior, equipped with much richer scripts and themes. Notwithstanding a few stylistic touches and the decision to observe some of the finer details of the operation like most procedurals would, T-Men is little more than an average thriller.
— Edgar Chaput