July 17 at Doc Films: “T-Men”

BY BRIAN BELAK

From the depiction of a gritty crime underworld to the fast dialogue and dark, shadowy sets, director Anthony Mann’s 1947 film T-Men, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Thursday, July 17, is a quintessential film noir in every way.

The eponymous T-Men (short for Treasury-Men) are two U.S. Treasury agents who go undercover to break down a counterfeiting ring that stretches across the country from Detroit to L.A. As they get deeper and deeper into a job that involves gaining trust and trading printing plates for money paper, the two men feel their lives consumed by their alter egos, threatening both worlds with destruction.

Driving T-Men is an insistence on reality, led by the semi-documentary style that feels much like a news report. Before anything else is on screen, there appears a notice that all representations of U.S. money were sanctioned by the Treasury Department, implying careful accuracy to reality. The film then launches into an in-depth description of the Treasury Department, narrated by a reporter-like voice, before settling on an “actual” Treasury employee, who introduces the events of the film as being from a real counterfeiting case – The Shanghai Paper Case.

From then on, the film would feel like any other fiction film were it not for the persistent narration from the reporter voice. This reporter walks the viewer through the entirety of the events, even while the drama heats up, explaining along the way what the agents are doing (rehearsing their backstory, working their way to crime boss) and how that aids their investigation. As a result, the intended effect on the viewer is not one of entertainment or thrills, but of information and learning. The film basically teaches one how to be an undercover agent and conduct this sort of investigation.

This documentary style works because it plays on the viewer’s desire to see the inner workings of the crime world, as well as the step-by-step reveal of how that world is infiltrated and brought down. This is the same force behind the wave of crime shows like CSI or Law & Order. Although clearly dramatized, there’s the idea that what is shown on screen is actually the way these cases are handled, and the viewer is being afforded a special glimpse into such secret, undercover investigations.

However, betraying the construction behind the documentary – but ultimately to the benefit of the film as a whole – is the artful lighting direction provided by the brilliant noir cinematographer John Alton. Alton and Mann collaborated many times during their careers, but T-Men holds up as one of the best. Although shot entirely on location in real rooms and real streets (a rare practice at the time), Alton takes complete control of the light, paring down the sources to a few at maximum, the resultant low light casting long shadows and obscuring a clear understanding of this complicated underworld.

Replacing the foggy nights often found in film noir are the bathhouses one of the main counterfeiters frequents. With the minimal light diffused by the surrounding steam, the bathhouses become otherworldly settings, where any sort of underground dealings, even murder, could occur unnoticed. One key scene in particular is shot mostly in close-up, showing only the sweating of faces amid the cloudy, somewhat spooky, background.

As the opening framing narrative implies, T-Men’s investigation ends successfully, and the leaders of the counterfeiting ring are arrested, though this is not without major losses from the two Treasury agents. Thus, the victory is less than triumphant, but it shows that crime of any kind, even just for undercover work, is a dangerous game to play.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.