Whether by fluke or design, joining the talents of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton resulted in one of the most potent creative teams in movie history certainly in the film noir cycle whose look and energy they helped forge (Alton's contributions are so innovative and striking that they amount to co-direction). Working for Eagle-Lion Studios on Poverty Row, they took a routine agents-in-peril plot packed with propaganda about Our Tax Dollars At Work in Washington and turned it into a memorable film that's little short of extraordinary -- at least at times. Treasury agents Dennis O'Keefe and Alfred Ryder get assigned to track down a counterfeiting ring uttering high-quality, almost indetectable paper. They catch the scent, by means of cigars and Chinese herbs, of a portly gentleman in San Francisco. Going into deep cover, they get drawn into an increasingly edgy and violent underworld, putting themselves at considerable risk (in one of the film's most morally freighted moments, one of them doesn't make it out). Appreciating this film means shutting out the super-patriotic anthem that rings out whenever we catch sight of the Capitol dome and the narrator's portentous drone that accompanies it (actually, more than 50 years later, these laughable gimmicks add a piquant period flavor). Instead, watch for Mann's syncopated pacing, which always catches you off guard, and for Alton's amazing throwaway effects. There are shots in this low-budget exercise so complex and evocative that they're models of the cinematographer's craft (Alton did, after all, write the seminal textbook "Painting With Light"). Shifting double images in the windows of telephone booths and pizza shops create parallel worlds. The film leaves us with a number of unforgettable set-pieces: Assassin Charles McGraw plying his trade in a Turkish bath, Ryder not being able to acknowledge his new bride for fear of blowing his cover, a murder which one of the agents dares not prevent, or even react to. T-Men looks terrific, keeps us on edge, and deserves its reputation as one of the high-points of the film noir cycle.
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Two US Treasury agents hunt a successful counterfeiting ring.
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April 6, 2019