T-Men (1947)

29 06 2008

While this isn’t quite as mature as Mann’s later Westerns, it is also much more daring in a sense. For sure, there is a greater sense of stylistic indulgence. In addition, this was quite obviously made for a lot less money than a film like say, The Tin Star, and thus there is an inherent level of fakeness, a “B-movie sensibility” if you will. But all of that is rather superficial and a way, kind of charming. For all the blue screens and cheap sets, Mann and Alton still manage to craft as much cinematic beauty in each frame, enough so that their visual grace can rival even the artiest of directors.

As usual with Mann’s films, describing the plot would almost imply a very negative reaction, but I’ll attempt to do so anyway. Two treasury agents go undercover to break up a thriving counterfeiting organization. In the process, they become increasingly involved in the city’s “seedy underbelly.” In other words, a pretty textbook noir setup. However, some credit should be do in the efforts to downplay the Hollywood conventions of a cause and effect type of narrative. While this is certainly no nuanced or deep character study, it also isn’t an overly eventful or shrill melodrama.

The “inexperience” on Mann’s part lends the film some of its most inspired moments. There seems to be a complete misunderstanding, or perhaps disinterest, in conventional pacing. In that sense, I’m somewhat reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog which would come out only a couple years later. Like Kurosawa, Mann seems like someone who has heard movies described to him, but never actually seen one himself. This isn’t an criticism, instead its a compliment. For as (seemingly) conventional as the narrative is, it is executed with a disregard for the “right” way to make a movie. A great example is the fact that Mann rarely falls under the spell of the “shot/reverse shot” style and instead, allows Alton’s picture-esque cinematography to linger for prolonged periods of time. Calling this the first “minimalist” film might be exaggerating its strength, but it certainly has an austere sensibility.

On the other hand, the inclusion of voiceover narration does send the film down a few pegs. There’s some many problems with it, alone, that it makes me terribly angry just to think about. First of all, the voice itself is completely sterile and boring, not unlike the voice in NFL Films presentations from the early sixties. I suppose if there had been an attempt to add personality, the results would have been even worse. Then again, I guess that is the problem with a third-person voice of God style of narration. The voiceover seems to annoyingly disappear for fairly long stretches of the film. While its absence is welcomed, its eventual return seems all the more silly. I suppose this isn’t a really big factor in the grand scheme of things but it does stand as a giant wart on the film’s otherwise perfectly smoothed face.

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