2017 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Jeremy Carr on Anthony Mann’s ‘T-Men’ and ‘Raw Deal’

Few filmmakers have had as interesting a relationship with genre as Anthony Mann. Though he directed dozens of films in a variety of forms — historical epics, action pictures, musical comedies — he is best known for the two genres that distinguish his most productive and impressive periods of filmmaking: his noirs of the 1940s and his Westerns of the 1950s. Even in this, though, while his James Stewart-starring horse operas are justly renowned as vital turning points in the genre’s history, they are frequently celebrated for Stewart’s presence alone and the post-war nihilism cast upon his amiable screen persona. Likewise, while Mann’s noirs are often lauded as B-movie gems, the director himself is less distinguished by name. In fact, as Jeanine Basinger has pointed out in her essential text on the director, some historians have been apt to assign primary credit, if not full authorship, to cinematographer John Alton. His work is undeniably integral to Mann’s noir vision, and as Basinger continues, “while it is true they are Alton’s in a way, it is the way that defines a simpatico collaboration between two artists who understand the sharing of mutual cinematic goal.” It’s a fair enough concession, and yet, even from an ardent Mann supporter, it still feels like a refusal of due tribute.

Mann had his contemporary champions — mostly European critics — but they were few and far between. Today, even with an allowance like that noted above, he is finally receiving the sort of singular attention paid to more prevalent Hollywood auteurs. And his noirs are a good place to start. Following his directorial debut in 1939, a television movie called The Streets of New York, Mann directed his first feature film in 1942: Dr. Broadway. A generic mixed bag of subject matter and quality further shaped the early part of the decade, until 1947, when he found a niche and hit his stride. It was a noirish string that began with Desperate and Railroaded!, both released in 1947, and ended with Side Street, from 1950 (the year he ventured into Western territory with the remarkable Winchester ’73).

Mann’s third film from 1947 was T-Men, based on a story by Virginia Kellogg with a screenplay by John C. Higgins, who also penned Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948), which Mann worked on uncredited, Border Incident (1949) and Railroaded. It’s probably not the most glamorous branch of government to have a film made in its honor, but T-Men takes as its central focus the dramatized inner working of the United States Treasury Department. A newsreel-style opener puts the picture and its subsequent content into context. Addressed by Elmer Lincoln Irey, a leading Treasury Department official who famously had a hand in bringing down Al Capone during his tenure as IRS investigator, viewers learn of the office’s “six fingers that make a fist” (hitting fair, but hard). This includes levels of enforcement from customs and intelligence to narcotics and the secret service. Irey’s lecture testifies to the breadth of the work being done, the intimidating extension of the law’s long arm, and it also establishes these T-Men, in their various guises, as models of efficiency. What we’re going to see is a “composite case,” Irey says, a tale with danger, “and plenty of it.”

The story chronicles the course of agents Dennis O’Brien (Dennis O’Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder). The two are enlisted to go undercover, to infiltrate and expose a counterfeiting ring with regional implications in Detroit and Los Angeles, and who knows where else in between. As they get deeper and deeper — O’Brien’s convincing ruse is capably conveyed by O’Keefe’s confident nonchalance — the agents latch on to one key player in particular, appropriately named The Schemer (Wallace Ford). As far as noir goes, T-Men lacks the existential anxiety that permeates the genre’s typical tenor. Rather, Mann favors the conventional suspense of simply getting caught, which is certainly still effective. The two heroes live treacherous covert lives, where sacrifice and danger come with the job description and personal backstories form chapters closed and sealed (Genaro suffers the consequences of his deception when real life interference threatens his subterfuge).

Criminality is pervasive, but as much as it resembles a film noir in appearance, T-Men is also an emblematic holdover from the post-Production Code crackdown of glamorized illicit activity, when charming, exciting gangsters briefly gave way to equally interesting, but more traditional, screen idols (see, for example, James Cagney’s transition from The Public Enemy in 1931 to G Men in 1935). Now, the officers are those with their own brand of streetwise lingo, talking tough on the side of law and order, a side Mann skillfully fleshes out. Forgiving the anonymous voiceover providing often unnecessary exposition along the way, there is considerable time spent on the technical facets and functions of the profession. T-Men thus becomes a procedural criminal case study, less noir in content, perhaps, but full throttle in terms of unlawful ambiance.

This isn’t the case with Mann’s follow-up, Raw Deal. This 1948 feature is noir to its core, from its archetypal narrative to its vibrant visual expression. The film picks up with imprisoned Joe Sullivan (O’Keefe again), who has taken the fall for an unspecified crime and is lingering in prison until he can finagle a way out and retrieve his owed recompenses. Waiting for him, and aiding his breakout, is faithful moll Pat, played by Claire Trevor. Upon his escape, as a dragnet develops around the city, Joe receives additional assistance from the reluctant Ann (Marsha Hunt), a social worker with a more than professional interest in the convict. Unbeknownst to the rather naive Joe, his felonious cohorts are less enthusiastic about his return, and they have no intention of providing his outstanding compensation. The gang is led by Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), a big boss first adorned in an elegant housecoat, getting his kicks by flicking a lighter’s flame at the ear of an associate and toppling another’s house of cards (one of his henchmen is superbly played by a devious John Ireland). Rick has a way of making his point and making an impression, most shockingly as he scalds a hovering floozy by dousing her with a flaming booze concoction, a sadistic touch previewing Mann’s surprisingly visceral Westerns (as others have noted, it also anticipates Lee Marvin throwing coffee into Gloria Grahame’s face in Fritz Lang’s 1953 noir The Big Heat). Often shot by Mann and Alton in a looming low angle, Burr is a dastardly villain, unpredictable and vicious. He is a monster, to be sure, yet there isn’t enough of him in the film.

Rick’s treachery is a solid scheme, but he doesn’t count on the degree of Joe’s desperation. This is an anguished man, a driven man, a man who embodies the despondency of film noir. On the surface, his beleaguered face is etched by the scars of incarceration; underneath, a fierce brutality boils. At times, he’ll emit a glimmer of decency, and one feels genuine sympathy for his ill-fated plight and the betrayal he suffers. But then one sees how he manhandles Ann, and suddenly, he isn’t so harmless. In other words, he is an exemplary noir protagonist: both good and bad, a shade of moral grey in a stark black and white world. “I may have romanticized you before,” Ann tells him as she comes to realize his capacity for violence. Yes, that happens with noir.

Raw Deal has an appropriate dosage of corresponding noir tropes. There is the fatalistic tone and the requisite dread, and there is the male lead burdened by frustration, impatience and skepticism. There is the doom-laden voice over (a relative rarity — it is a woman, Pat, who provides the narration), and there is the sinful fusion of revenge, greed, pride and jealousy. Joe is perennially down on his luck, nearing the end of a path fraught with bad turns and twists of fate (there is, in the film, an actual Corkscrew Alley). He is left with a grudge against privilege and the prosperity of others. With screenwriters Higgins and Leopold Atlas, Mann peppers Raw Deal with seminal phrases like “two-time loser” and “behind the eight ball,” and the situations are prototypical noir happenstance: getting tripped up by a bullet-riddled gas tank or a neighboring outlaw on the run. Joe’s ostensible freedom is mocked by Ann, for there is no freedom when it comes to a man like him, especially in a film like this. He recalls his heroic youth, when admirable deeds landed him a medal, but that was then and this is now. Noir has a funny way with the past: it’s always out of reach and forgotten, yet it remains a relentlessly tormenting memory.

These thematic essentials notwithstanding, what designates T-Men and Raw Deal as instantly identifiable noir entries is their prominent pictorial panache. And this brings things back to the Oscar-winning Alton (the Hungary-born cinematographer shared the Academy Award with Alfred Gilks for their 1951 color production An American in Paris, a picture of decidedly differing imagery than what one sees here). In both T-Men and Raw Deal, Alton and Mann take what is already a heightened genre and somehow intensify its formal qualities. (Raw Deal’s amplified sounds — foghorns, passing cars, the blare of an elevated train — and the eerie score by prolific Paul Sawtell also help.) Mann was surely one of Hollywood’s great visualists, repeatedly orchestrating a range of variable angles, lenses and painstaking lighting designs, as well as expertly edited juxtapositions of shot size, where spacious arrangements slam into close-ups and back again. T-Men, less blatantly stylized than Raw Deal, is no less stunning, with dynamic camera positioning (under a sink to show a hidden faceplate) and Mann’s extraordinary use of expressive location, as when the agents canvass cloaking steam baths, sleuth in the nocturnal shadows and take advantage of environmental obstructions like alleyways, doors and beams. Gambling dens emit spotlights from single light sources, throwing the background into a pit of darkness, while reflections in mirrors underscore a duplicitous motif and open the set to multilayered compositional possibility. In Raw Deal, by comparison, sequences take place in a crisp autumnal forest and in a crowded taxidermy shop, where a fight is partly masked by sheets, tables, nets and mounts (there is a near antler-impalement). Mann’s enviable aptitude for staging, which would rival John Ford when it came to his Westerns, was similarly alive and well in the world of noir.

Others have undoubtedly contributed to the cinema of Anthony Mann, from the composers he worked with to the cinematographers, editors and stars. But when scholars and critics start putting these films together, recognizing the consistent quality and methodical inventiveness, it becomes clear these pictures are ultimately connected by one name and one name only. It’s then that credit must go where credit is due. That credit goes to Anthony Mann.

Watch ‘T-Men’ and ‘Raw Deal’ at FilmStruck.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.

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