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The T in the T-Men stands for Treasury. As if to bolt cinema doors to stop people escaping, this 1947 crime drama opens with an urgent voiceover informing us that T-Men are actually really exciting and not boring at all. Think of them more like secret agents, it insists in footage that’s all cloak and dagger and maximum stakes. The voiceover goes on to tell us that the T-Men serve a crucial role in society and are a vital tool of the US government, protecting all citizens from the depradations of mobsters, smugglers, counterfeiters and the like. To reinforce the point, an earnest, to-screen homily follows, spoken by Elmer Lincoln Irey, real-life chief of the Internal Revenue Intelligence Unit, who again tells us how important the work of the T-Men is. He lists his various departments and tells us what they all do, before passing on the surely exaggerated statistic that in any given year as many as 64% of people in prison have been put there by his agents.

His departments, he says, are a “six fingered fist… that punches fair but hard”, a bizarre image. And then this so-called semi-documentary (stupid name for a genre – this is a drama with a few of the documentary’s stylistic tics) finally gets underway.

The original idea was for this to be a retelling of the takedown of the gangster Al Capone, a success for the IRS where the FBI had failed. But Irey vetoed that idea and instead proposed the confection we have here, about agents on the Shanghai Paper Case tracking down and neutralising a gang who counterfeit dollar bills.

Dennis O’Keefe plays Dennis O’Brian, one of two T-Men sent undercover to flush out the gang whose high-quality paper and printing plates make them a particular threat. Alongside second banana Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder), the pair head for Detroit, where they spend some time building themselves alter egos as Vannie Harrigan and Tony Galvani, the last remaining members of a defunct gang, or so they say, who now want to get back in on the action.

The ruse pays off, eventually, and the action shifts to Los Angeles, where the urgent voiceover continues to keep us abreast of developments as the guys work their way higher up the chain, chasing the elusive Mr Big who runs the counterfeit operation and trying to avoid having their cover blown.

Dennis O'Keefe and Mary Meade
“Vannie” and Evangeline (on screen for mere seconds)

This was the first time director Anthony Man worked together with the brilliant cinematographer John Alton, whose lighting is classic noir – nightscapes, harsh bright light, deep dark shadow – but Alton-inflected with deep focus and an eye for a diagonal.

It was one of a run of noirs that would earn Mann a reputation for being able to turn them in cheap, fast and good. He’d do the same thing all over again in the 1950s, making westerns, before shifting again into huge widescreen epics like El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Mann has a good cast. O’Keefe was an unusual choice. Best known for light comedic roles or romances, he is convincing as both a federal agent and as a gangster. This was the film that changed his public persona and relaunched him as a noir stalwart. He’d be back the following year, again with Mann and Alton, with Raw Deal, another gem.

Alfred Ryder is slightly shortchanged by the screenplay but his character, Tony, plays a crucial role in the film’s standout scene, a standoff which becomes a moment of heroic sacrifice – brilliantly executed by all concerned.

Standing out on the sidelines are a couple of the gang – Wallace Ford as the Schemer, a Mr Fixit and go-between who also ends up in a very nasty place. And Charles McGraw as the psychopathic Moxie, the guy who puts the Schemer there.

Apart from the slightly absurd earnestness of it all, and the regular references to the US government indicating that it’s been made with its seal of approval, it’s a taut and dramatic affair. Ironically, it seems the film was part financed with mob money – so much for Elmer Lincoln Irey’s six-fingered fist.

T-Men – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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