While ultimately more famous for his Westerns, director Anthony Mann also notched up fourteen Noir or Noir adjacent films across his catalogue. In this article, I’ll take a look at these energetic B-Movies and shadowy gems in an attempt to rank them from worst to best.
After the wonderful Desperate, I had high hopes for subsequent Mann Noirs and went into Railroaded! (oh, that wonderful exclamation mark!) with giddy anticipation. What I discovered was an efficient Noir. It’s really very efficient. Railroaded! is extremely efficient. And a wee bit dull. It’s not that I didn’t like Railroaded! It was fine. It just felt like the sort of standard Noir that will get instantly lost in the crowd, its generic wrong-man plot, stock characters and fair-to-wobbly performances just about keeping their heads above water as the brief runtime trickles by. The screenplay is by John C. Higgins, an important collaborator who would pen four of Mann’s next five films, and while it’s not an especially brilliant script, it does feel as if there is a better film to be made from it. After flexing his directorial muscles with some virtuoso sequences in Desperate, here it feels like Mann is just trying to get through the material as quickly and efficiently as possible. And it is efficient. If there’s one thing you can say about Railroaded!, it’s that it is efficient. And dull.
Unlike the comparatively polished Desperate, Railroaded! is a rough and ready B-Movie through and through. This sometimes works in its favour, as in an amusingly sloppy fight sequence between Jane Randolph and Sheila Ryan or a final confrontation between good and evil, while at others it makes the film seem a little undercooked. Some of the scenes fly by as if they were filmed 5 minutes before lunch, hitting the necessary plot points but with very little apparent enthusiasm from the director or his actors. Efficient, you might call it.
At this point it’s probably obvious that I’m struggling to find much to say about Railroaded! Some have praised the villainous performance of John Ireland or the way Mann keeps a dry plot moving forward but mostly people refer to Railroaded! with that terrible word “efficient”. Some people mean it in a more complimentary way than I’ve been using it but few are that enthusiastic about Railroaded’s predictable approach. It doesn’t derail my enthusiasm for more Mann Noirs but neither does it come close to earning that exclamation mark in its title. I’ve placed it at a surprisingly low position in my ranking, below the likes of Dr. Broadway and Two O’Clock Courage, flawed productions which I nevertheless enjoyed a lot more than Railroaded! And it doesn’t begin to touch the luridly entertaining Strange Impersonation or Strangers in the Night, films which could plausibly have exclamation marks at the beginning and end of every word in their titles!
13. HE WALKED BY NIGHT
I was unsure whether to include He Walked By Night in this list, given that the official director’s credit for the film goes to Alfred Werker. But the consensus seems to be that at least half the film was directed by Mann and, in terms of their respective filmographies, He Walked By Night certainly seems to slot more neatly into Mann’s than Werker’s. Another crime-themed B-Movie for Eagle-Lion Films, He Walked By Night once again features a screenplay by John C. Higgins and cinematography by John Alton. It’s unclear why Mann was not the immediate choice to work with his regular collaborators again. It’s also unclear as to whether He Walked By Night would be as dramatically inert as it is if Mann had been in the director’s chair from day one.
While He Walked By Night is often folded into the then-recent Noirs that Mann had made for Eagle-Lion, it doesn’t quite feel like a Noir to me so much as a police procedural with Noirish touches here and there. Mann’s previous T-Men could be seen as a model for He Walked By Night, but that went for an emphatically Noir atmosphere. By contrast, He Walked By Night’s measured approach and more restrained, if no less psychotic, protagonist make for a slower, less-gripping plod through the details of a real life case. In an interesting move, He Walked By Night gives us the viewpoints of both the police tracking a killer and the killer himself. Played by Richard Baseheart, the criminal is hardly charismatic. Much is made of how he has a close relationship with his dog, the like of which he clearly can’t forge with humans, but that’s about as deep as the psychology goes here. There’s a certain mysterious allure to this enigmatic character at first but it gives way to boredom as the viewer realises the part is more underwritten than it is subtle. The fact that the cops are utterly faceless too gives us little chance to get an emotional foothold.
He Walked By Night noticeably picks up in its last fifteen minutes as the net closes around the killer and he tries to make his escape. One of the most interesting plot wrinkles of the whole film is how the killer uses the L.A. storm drains to navigate the city undetected and this pays off handsomely with a final action sequence in which he is pursued through the underground network of sewers. John Alton’s cinematography is given its greatest chance to shine here and the scenes provide a fitting, if somewhat abrupt, ending to the story. Cinephiles will immediately notice the similarity between this ending and that of Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man and might reasonably assume that this B-Movie was trying to emulate that film’s success. Surprising to learn then that He Walked By Night came first, although The Third Man was being shot at around the same time and it is likely a coincidence rather than a case of He Walked By Night being an influence.
By the time of He Walked By Night, Mann’s Noir B-Movies had reached a real peak and this feels like a bit of a comedown, although the fact that Mann didn’t get to oversee the entire film means his vision is only intermittently apparent here. Perhaps it is best to leave He Walked By Night out of the official Mann filmography altogether, although fans will obviously be curious to see it. It remains a reasonably diverting but ultimately disappointing side street in the Mann canon.
12. DR. BROADWAY
As I started my chronological journey through the filmography of Anthony Mann, I had a feeling I was going to enjoy these B-movies that make up the early portion of his career. But there is always a nagging doubt with B-movies that for every uncomplicatedly enjoyable potboiler there’ll be a handful of unwatchably dreary, poorly made films that make their short runtimes feel like you’ve just sat through The Ten Commandments. Fortunately, Dr. Broadway turned out to be the former. I was relieved to find myself enjoying Dr. Broadway but not entirely surprised. Though the majority of Anthony Mann films I’d seen at this point were his A-Pictures, I always felt he brought an energy and economy to them that was indicative of a former helmer of B-Movies. So l went in with a confidence in the director that isn’t always a given with low-budget fare from the Golden Age. Mann wasn’t a complete novice, of course, having been in the business for many years in various roles, include Preston Sturges’ assistant director on Sullivan’s Travels. Borden Chase, a future regular collaborator with Mann on some of his most famous Westerns, was also involved here, writing the story around which Art Arthur’s snappy (occasionally too snappy) screenplay was based. So the film has a good pedigree.
With a film as modestly budgeted and critically ignored as Dr. Broadway, you don’t go in expecting a masterpiece but I got approximately what I’d hoped for. There’s an interesting premise about a charismatic doctor who becomes entangled in the final dealings of a repentant mobster and Macdonald Carey makes for a likeable lead. Jean Phillips shows promise in the role of an aspiring actress who becomes the doctor’s assistant but her part is too haphazardly written to register as it should. There’s a good slate of supporting bit players who fill the film with personality but many characters seem to flit across the screen in promising cameos only to never return. Fewer faces with a greater focus upon them might’ve helped here.
Dr. Broadway has an often witty script but it seems a little too keen to find the next one-liner and becomes flippant at rather inappropriate moments. For instance, the film opens with some cops and the doctor himself at the scene of an apparent suicide attempt by a woman on a ledge. It turns out to be a publicity stunt but they don’t know this at the time, which makes their cheery banter and willingness to bet on the outcome play as a little cruel. And, of course, when the doc has to save the woman from the attentions of the law, his plan involves punching her in the face, a not uncommon plot wrinkle in this era but still shocking to watch, especially when played for broad laughs like it is here. While Dr. Broadway doesn’t give Mann a ton of opportunity to show his potential, he does prove how he can keep a film moving along at a good clip and his actors all seem energised and like they’re enjoying the experience. Fortunately, this is infectious and Dr. Broadway is a more than adequate way to kill 68 minutes.
11. TWO O’ CLOCK COURAGE
If the preceding The Great Flamarion marked a step forward for Anthony Mann the auteur, Two O’Clock Courage was continued proof that he could still knock out a reliably entertaining B-Movie as well. Running at barely an hour, Two O’Clock Courage is often referred to as a Noir but it feels much more like a light comedy mystery. A remake of Two in the Dark, an RKO picture from less than a decade before, Two O’Clock Courage follows the progress of a man with a head wound who can’t remember who he is, how he got there or what he has done. Assisted by a cheery, adventurous female cab driver who happens upon his predicament when she almost hits him with her taxi, the man begins to slowly piece together the details that left him in this amnesiac state. It sounds like a good set up for an intriguing mystery but the details of the case are far less compelling than the development of the central relationship and the fun dialogue. Tom Conway and Ann Rutherford are both utterly charming as the central pair, convincingly falling for each other in one of the sweetest hurried courtships I’ve ever seen. Rutherford is particularly effervescent, lighting up the screen with her enthusiasm and warmth, and it is to the film’s detriment when she drops out of it for a while at the end as the necessity of the plot is dealt with.
While I did enjoy it, it’s hard to call Two O’Clock Courage a great film or even a particularly good one. There’s too much plot to squeeze into its tight timeframe and an extra ten minutes at least would’ve made it appear less rushed. As it is, the details of the plot that should be gripping us start to matter less and less as they are checked off in a perfunctory manner and a strong premise is wasted. Conway and Rutherford are able to carry the film entertainingly through its short runtime however, and what I did like a lot was that their relationship is played out as an immediate mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, rather than to a they-hate-each-other/they-love-each-other screwball template. There’s a disarmingly sweet moment where they quietly advance their relationship by putting their arms around each other in a pally but intimate way, Rutherford’s delight at this advancement shining in her smile.
While it may be hard to call it a good film, Two O’Clock Courage is also a hard film to dislike. While the mystery elements may falter, the comedy, though mild, generally works well, with a running gag about a reporter calling his incredulous editor with the evermore bizarre facts of the case reminding me of those great scenes with a befuddled JK Simmons from the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading.
10. STRANGE IMPERSONATION
To enjoy Strange Impersonation as much as I did, you need to be prepared for a couple of things. Firstly, it is preposterous. Hopefully, if you’re coming to this one off the back of your love of B-movies then that might even be a plus. Secondly, it’s pretty sexist. That shouldn’t surprise anyone of a 1940s film but it seems like Strange Impersonation’s main purpose, outside of offering some delightfully lurid entertainment, is to warn women in the audience about the dangers of putting your job above your matrimonial prospects, even if you are an eminent scientist on the verge of a huge breakthrough. There’s a hilarious moment when the lead character’s fiancé tries to kiss her in a laboratory and she chastises him with “Stephen, remember… science!”
If the silliness of Strange Impersonation is part of the fun, it also has some genuinely good elements. Though hugely far-fetched, the plot is nicely constructed in order to offer another little twist every ten minutes or so. Many of these twists are very effective and surprising, keeping the viewer gripped even as they have to suspend their disbelief more and more. Brenda Marshall is good in the lead role and Hillary Brooks is a blast in a supporting role that goes to some unexpected places. And some of the dialogue is gloriously ripe, complimented by great character names like the ambulance-chasing lawyer J.W. Rinse!
Mann had already proved himself able to elevate B-material with his excellent pacing and ability to draw appealing performances out of his actors. This is evident in Strange Impersonation but there is also a great moment in the film’s finale where the plot threads come together and the pressure mounts, in which Mann asserts his stylistic flair more strongly to create an atmospheric crescendo that sees the film peak right before its cop-out ending. I won’t spoil it but it’s actually not that well concealed and most modern viewers will guess it from a cliche Mann employs early in the story. Still, with a film this boldly ludicrous, few people will be bemoaning the ending for ruining what came before. If anything, it’s almost fitting.
9. STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
Now this is more like it! After the mild charms of Anthony Mann’s earlier films, Strangers in the Night was exactly what I hope for in a B-movie. Intriguing, trashy, spooky, pacey and just a little bit ridiculous, Strangers in the Night is a blast which comes and goes in 56 short, thoroughly satisfying minutes. Strangers in the Night is the story of a wounded soldier who comes to a small American town searching for the woman with whom he has struck up a romantic correspondence, only to find her mysteriously missing with only an ominous portrait and a seemingly unstable mother where she should be. Hitchcock’s recent arrival in Hollywood had caused quite a stir and Rebecca is the obvious template for this tale, with Mann managing to summon up a small-scale equivalent of that film’s atmosphere, even if its dramatic beats and payoff are significantly more hurried. Hitchcock hangs over this production like the central portrait, with Suspicion’s poisoned glass of milk also making a conspicuous appearance in the narrative. But there are also hints of later films by other directors here, such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Despite having the traditional bland male lead, Strangers in the Night feels progressive in its focus on women. The main cast is largely female and all the characters interact with each other and talk about more than just the man who has suddenly entered their lives. Sure, the man plays a big part in the events but he is moved around like a chess piece, by both the director and the female characters around him. William Terry is predictably dull as the soldier but Virginia Grey, Helene Thimig and Edith Barrett are all very good as the new town doctor (Gasp! A female doctor!), the obsessively controlling mother and her jittery, dominated friend respectively. Thimig has the plum role here, wrapping her prominent Austrian accent around ripe, loaded dialogue with lascivious glee.
The ultra-short runtime of Strangers in the Night ensures it never overstays its welcome. The mystery, which is fairly predictable but gripping nonetheless, isn’t spun out and events that could’ve become repetitive over a longer film are well served by its nippiness. Of course, the necessity to wrap things up quickly does mean that Strangers in the Night suffers from a severe case of third act madness, pretty well going off the rails in its last ten minutes. But in a film of this kind, this sort of eleventh hour wig-out is to be relished and those susceptible to a trashy escalation will probably love where this goes. The final, unintentionally hilarious moment is perhaps a step too far but it closes things with a nice ironic flourish and, in all honesty, ending Strangers in the Night by going over-the-top feels like absolutely the right choice. Watching this potboiler emphatically boil over is a delight.
8. THE GREAT FLAMARION
With The Great Flamarion, Anthony Mann made a big leap forward as a director. Up to this point, his competent and occasionally notable direction had got the best out of some passable material. But The Great Flamarion at once feels like a more prestige project. Though still very much a B-movie, The Great Flamarion has a greater confidence and visual finesse that at once makes it stand out from Mann’s previous projects. His use of long zooms, interesting camera angles and atmospheric lighting immediately give the film a polished feel, while the presence of a recognisable lead in Erich Von Stroheim also gives the film a credibility boost.
The story of The Great Flamarion is nothing new, focusing on the old trope of a femme fatale playing the men in her life off against one another for her own personal hedonistic pleasure. The film opens with her murder and then plays out in flashback as the self-confessed murderer, himself dying, recounts the events leading up to her death. That marks the film out not as a Whodunnit but rather a Whydunnit, and the framing device of a dying narrator confessing his crimes immediately links the film with the previous year’s Double Indemnity, although inviting this comparison to the Billy Wider classic does prove to be to The Great Flamarion’s detriment.
If The Great Flamarion’s story is a bit hackneyed and potentially a tad misogynistic, this is compensated for by an often smart screenplay and Mann’s strong direction. It feels as if the director knew he had something a cut above the light musicals he’d been trotting out previously and pulled out the stops to realise its potential. The way in which Mann presents the scenes of the cabaret is extremely evocative, particularly the long shot that opens the film that zooms slowly into the stage, drinking in the atmosphere of the show from an audience’s perspective. A backstage scene in with an act is performed in silhouette in the background, and a neat shot of a curtain call from behind the performer involved, also stand out.
While The Great Flamarion isn’t as much fun as Strangers in the Night, it does immediately and consistently feel like a better film so I have placed it one place higher. If Mann’s previous films felt like decent potboilers delivered with professionalism, The Great Flamarion feels like a project in which an artist is beginning to assert his talents.
7. SIDE STREET
Side Street saw Anthony Mann making a lighter, more polished crime film than his previous excursions in the genre. If the slightly higher budget does seem to dull the edges a little, Mann throws himself behind this marginally more commercial work with great energy. The first thing that really jumps out about Side Street is its fabulously shot New York locations. Gone are the claustrophobic spaces of Raw Deal or the inky vistas of Border Incident, replaced by crisply shot NY streets courtesy of cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg. Ruttenberg’s vision is very different from long-time Mann collaborator John Alton’s, but it is just right for Side Street’s nippier style and it makes the film a pleasure to spend 83 minutes with.
Side Street’s main stumbling block is probably its script, which presents a story in which the central conceit is “this could happen to any of us.” This man is not a criminal, we are repeatedly told about Farley Granger’s Joe, who impulsively steals two hundred dollars only to find himself unexpectedly in possession of thirty thousand and a murder rap to boot. There’s something to be said for the attitude of forgiveness that pervades Side Street but there’s also a sense that it lets its protagonist off too easy, given that his intentions, however impulsive, were entirely criminal. Not only that but Joe then goes on to try and extricate himself from the situation by making a series of even more boneheaded moves. I lost sympathy for him almost entirely right around the scene where he stalks and threatens a terrified bank employee, but others may finally cut Joe loose from their hearts when he breaks into a maternity ward or kisses a nightclub singer while his wife looks after their new baby. Desperation can drive a man to all sorts and Joe takes that cliché and runs it into the ground.
If Joe is a bit of a wearing protagonist, Farley Granger’s wide-eyed performance helps balance that out. Few stars played panic and regret more reliably than Granger and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a film where he doesn’t spend the entire runtime sweating through his shirt. As Joe’s wife, Cathy O’Donnell (Granger’s previous co-star in They Live By Night) has some good moments but it’s not much of a part really and when she’s not in a state of despair, O’Donnell has little to do but simper in that way so many underwritten female roles of the era called for. As the police captain on the case, Paul Kelly is drolly unsentimental and it’s refreshing to see this stock character played in a less folksy way, although his opening and closing narrations are pretty cheesy and singularly unconvincing. Top acting honours though go to the always welcome Jean Hagen whose late appearance as a nightclub singer makes for the most entertaining extended cameo. Hagen has a knack for playing characters in a way that is both humorous and sad, and that is certainly the case here, perhaps with the scales tipped towards the latter.
Side Street is another efficient crime film in the Mann filmography. I repeatedly used the word “efficient” in a derogatory manner when reviewing Mann’s earlier Railroaded! but Side Street is proof that efficiency need not equal dullness. Side Street is a consistently entertaining, if occasionally frustrating, film with a decent premise, some nice twists and even a fun little car chase. There’s a sense that the script could’ve resulted in something a tad televisual had Mann and his team not been at the helm. Fortunately they were, so Side Street has a gloriously labyrinthine New York to mirror the screenplay’s moral maze.
6. BORDER INCIDENT
Border Incident marked the fifth and final collaboration between Anthony Mann and screenwriter John C. Higgins, a partnership that had produced classics like T-Men and Raw Deal. Whenever two people stop working together in Hollywood, the pessimist in me always wonders if there was some acrimonious split involved. In this case however, I suspect the Mann/Higgins relationship may just have run its course. Border Incident, after all, shares so much of the structure of T-Men that some people have even deemed it a loose remake. But while the similarities are undeniable, Mann and Higgins have managed to make a very different film here in many respects. Moving away from the city locations, Border Incident takes T-Men’s Noirish procedural to the Californian border. The open spaces feel like a bridge between the claustrophobia of Mann’s city-based Noirs and the wider vistas of his Westerns, making Border Incident an important transitional work.
Border Incident was also the first film Mann made after his move from the small Eagle-Lion Films to the major MGM. While he was still given a comparatively small budget, Border Incident is noticeably a film with greater resources behind it. John Alton is on board again, bringing his sumptuous cinematography to the outdoor landscapes, his inky shadows preserving the sense of oppressive Noir claustrophobia even when there’s open air for miles around. Unlike T-Men, which made use of voiceover narration throughout, Border Incident only has opening and closing interjections from an omniscient narrator. While many reviewers have claimed this was Mann “learning from his mistakes”, I’ve always thought the narration in T-Men works really well and is fitting for its semi-documentary approach. Whether there was ever a lengthier narration envisaged for Border Incident I’m not sure but it was certainly the right decision to ultimately keep it to a minimum. In fact, the opening and closing appearances of the narrator feel so out-of-place with the show-not-tell cinematic feel of the rest of the film that I wish it’d been dropped altogether. The only function it really serves is to link Border Incident more clearly with Mann’s former film, an unhelpful and unnecessary comparison.
These minor flaws aside, Border Incident is a very strong thriller and a clear step out of B-Movie territory and towards the big leagues. Fortunately, Mann would never lose the vital energy of his early work, which clearly informs his more famous A-Pictures to an invigorating degree. It’s here in Border Incident, driving the narrative forward through a couple of slight lulls to create a compelling gem. A film about illegal Mexican migrant workers which portrays them in a sympathetic light, instead focusing on condemning those exploiting their desperation, feels very ahead of its time and there are obviously themes that still resonate strongly here. While the portrayal of Mexicans is not always without issues, for the most part they are shown in a sympathetic and dignified light, with only the odd stereotype creeping in and several actual Mexicans used in key roles, a representational issue usually given little consideration in an era where skin-darkening make-up was a little too readily on standby. Mexican born actor Ricardo Montalban, excellent as an undercover agent posing as a migrant, noted that Border Incident was one of the only films he appeared in where he got to play a Mexican.
While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best Mann/Higgins collaborations, Border Incident is a great way to end that working relationship, drawing on the strengths of the partnership but in different settings and with a greater emphasis on relevant political and social issues than T-Men’s tale of counterfeiting had allowed for. Though rarely recognised as one of Mann’s major works, Border Incident does feel like an important one in his development as a director and it’s a damn good film to boot.
Wow! After the disappointing comedy The Bamboo Blonde, I thought there’d be a few half-decent Noirs before Mann found his feet as one of the celebrated practitioners of the genre but Desperate swoops in fully formed and brilliant. I suppose the key mistake I made was assuming Mann had to build up his talents when it is clear from what I’ve already watched that he was always a great director just waiting for that match up with the right material. With Desperate, Mann tipped the scales slightly with a screenplay based on a story he co-wrote himself (the only one of his own films on which he’d serve as writer). This seems to bring with it a greater passion to do the screenplay justice, as well as a clarity of vision that begins at the very inception of the material.
Noir is one of the most closely guarded genres by pedants, who will tell you in a second that your favourite example of the genre is not “true Noir” before listing a tedious, overprescriptive set of characteristics that must be met. This sort of self-appointed gatekeeperism reduces lively conversation that incorporates all sorts of great films on the fringes of Noir, to a tedious, repetitive list of classics that are already thoroughly picked over. By my own set of looser criteria, I’d be happy to consider this Mann’s first proper Noir film after a handful of forerunners that skirted the genre. With its story of an innocent truck driver who becomes embroiled in a crime and pursued by both the villains and the police, Desperate has a classic setup and Mann doesn’t miss a chance to wring out another great set-piece or encounter. Perhaps Desperate’s most brilliant moment comes early on, in which the hero is beaten into submission by the criminals holding him hostage. Early in the scene, Mann has one of the characters knock the single bulb lighting the room and throughout the scuffle it swings backwards and forwards, briefly illuminating the horrific scene before plunging it back into darkness again, over and over and over. It’s an ingenious and beautifully orchestrated moment that immediately characterises Desperate as a grimmer, nastier proposition than the early Mann semi-Noirs, which always combined their dark edges with a ripe sense of the preposterous.
Although the cast of Desperate weren’t big names at the time, there are more recognisable faces here than in the previous Mann films. Lead Steve Brodie, quite apart from reminding me of a young Richard Dreyfuss, would work with Mann several more times and appeared in supporting roles in countless Noirs and Westerns, while Raymond Burr, a superbly imposing villain, will be immediately recognisable to fans of Hitchcock or the TV series Perry Mason. There’s also a recognisable name in the form of Jason Robards, the father of a more-famous namesake son. Desperate is often excluded from the Noir canon based on its slightly more optimistic outlook. The fatalism and moral ambiguity that characterise the great Noir heroes are missing from the central couple here, with trucker Steve being more straightforwardly heroic and his relationship with his new wife Anne a symbol of good, pure love in a world of brutal gangsters, opportunistic private investigators and dishonest car salesmen. This raises the stakes for the viewer and it is always clear who we’re rooting for without reservation, which is not always the case in Noir. But Mann gives us some of the most memorable, shadowy encounters I’ve ever seen, from that aforementioned bulb scene to a tense torture-by-expectation and a stairwell shoot-out that foreshadows Mann’s future Western credentials.
With another slimline runtime bursting with event, Desperate is a terrific film that set Mann off on a run of respected Noirs which forever linked his name with the genre, a link only eclipsed by his subsequent stronger link with the Western.
I saw T-Men several years ago and really enjoyed it, giving it 4 stars and making a note to revisit it someday. Maybe it was seeing it in context of Mann’s filmography, maybe my tastes have changed or maybe I was just in the right mood but this time round T-Men felt like a cast-iron Noir classic. The story of two agents from the U.S. Treasury who go undercover to bust up a counterfeiting ring, T-Men takes a semi-documentary approach, with one of those risible, reverent straight-to-camera introductions by a stilted real-life official and a booming, authoritative narration by Reed Hadley. If you’re a big fan of show-not-tell storytelling, you may have an issue with T-Men. The narrator interjects at every possible moment to tell the viewer what the agents are doing and why, but somehow this is part of the film’s unique charm. The unusual mix of the documentary-like structure and the gritty Noir vignettes of the investigation works wonderfully.
I can understand why there are those who find T-Men a bit dry. Although the plot has plenty of twists and turns, the methodical way in which the case is laid out might frustrate those who like to jump to the highlights. I’d liken this approach to the first hour of Anatomy of a Murder (which I love), in which we watch James Stewart’s lawyer slowly build a case before we even get near a courtroom. T-Men doesn’t have quite as long a runtime to play with but it still manages to include scenes of the agents doing their research, creating their characters and helping each other memorise important details before we plunge into the mission itself. The action-hungry may find this infuriating but being included in every step of the process makes for a more immersive experience and I felt more connected to the case than a mere thrill-seeking outsider.
As well as continuing Mann’s collaboration with screenwriter John C. Higgins, who wrote the less-impressive Railroaded!, T-Men also established some other important working relationships for Mann. Lead actor Dennis O’Keefe would star in Mann’s next film, Raw Deal, which would also be produced by T-Men’s financier Edward Small. But most crucial of all was the beginning of a collaboration with legendary cinematographer John Alton which would last for another half-dozen films. Alton is remembered as one of the great Noir cinematographers and his intensely atmospheric camerawork is a linchpin of T-Men’s impact. The shady realism of the L.A. locations is beautifully captured, while claustrophobic indoor sets are given a cinematic space through interesting camera angles and the contrast between light and dark. The way men’s faces are swallowed up in black holes that sit anonymously beneath their hats is an indelible feature of T-Men.
T-Men is thrillingly hard-boiled, never shying away from the brutal machinations of the criminal underworld. Fists fly and guns are pointed at a moments notice. The danger these agents are putting themselves in, or that the criminals are in from each other, is never downplayed and T-Men takes it to a logical conclusion with one unforgettable moment that lingers long in the memory. Mann presents this moment with a winning simplicity, not feeling the need to overreach when the emotion of the situation alone can carry the scene. Though it may not have the same instantly entertaining qualities as Mann’s previous Desperate, T-Men is a classic slow burn of a thriller, emerging as all the more satisfying for the time and care it takes in building its atmosphere. Those who think B-Movies were always tossed off product and nothing more would do well to make T-Men their first case study to the contrary.
3. RAW DEAL
It’s quite clear that by the time of Raw Deal, Anthony Mann really knew what he was doing. He seems to be able to produce an exemplary Noir B-Movie with apparently effortless brilliance. It helps that Mann was able to assemble an impressive supergroup of past collaborators, including John C. Higgins, John Alton and Dennis O’Keefe, T-Men’s writer, cinematographer and star respectively. Railroaded’s John Ireland and Desperate’s Raymond Burr are back again in villainous roles, and the cast is rounded out by two great female leads, Marsha Hunt and Claire Trevor. Trevor had already been Oscar-nominated once at this stage for Dead End and would win the Best Supporting Actress award in a few year’s time for Key Largo. She brings a smattering of star quality to the film, which in turn boosted her subsequent reputation as the Queen of Noir.
Although Desperate and T-Men firmly established Mann’s Noir credentials, they were less morally muddy than the genre’s more celebrated works. Both films had heroic leads and some semblance of a happy ending, while Raw Deal is far more ambiguous in these respects. Every character here is morally compromised, from O’Keefe’s escaped convict & Trevor’s lovesick accomplice and lover, to Burr’s more ferociously evil mobster. Even Hunt’s initially pure legal caseworker finds herself struggling with her values when she inadvertently discovers how willingly she can fire a gun. It’s a cracking script from Higgins and Leopold Atlas and the moral quagmire they create is perfectly reflected in Alton’s inky cinematography that eats up every frame with its creeping ominousness. Within the parameters of a Noir B-Movie’s low-key style, every performer acquits themselves admirably. O’Keefe’s character could scarcely be more different from his squeaky-clean T-Men persona, while Burr essentially reprises his mobster from Desperate, albeit even nastier this time round. But it’s the women that stand out here, with Hunt’s caseworker getting most of the best dramatic speeches as she struggles with her feelings for a criminal, and Trevor effortlessly iconic as the woman watching her man slip away from her. At first Trevor seems slightly marginalised by the developing love story between O’Keefe and Hunt, but gradually she is positioned as the central character, cleverly controlled by the script’s decision to give her the intermittent narrator duties.
It’s easy to see why Raw Deal is usually chosen as Mann’s finest Noir. While there is some debate over whether previous Mann films count as so-called “pure Noir”, few could argue against Raw Deal’s credentials in that respect. It’s every inch the Noir film and surely one of the finest examples of the genre’s B-Movies. This B-Movie gets an A from me.
2. REIGN OF TERROR
I wasn’t surprised to find several B-Movie gems amongst Anthony Mann’s Noir films. Once Mann began making A-Pictures in the 50s, he built up so many brilliant hit films that this earlier period often gets missed by all but the most dedicated fans of either Noir or Mann himself. So it didn’t surprise me too much when I ended up giving Desperate, T-Men and Raw Deal 5 star reviews and bumping them up to the top of my Anthony Mann ranking. What did surprise me, however, was when the even more obscure Historical Thriller Reign of Terror surpassed all of them. I had heard from the select few who had seen it that Reign of Terror was good. Some said great. But it absolutely blew me away.
With a few exceptions (a War film here, a Spy film there), the Anthony Mann filmography can broadly be broken down into four categories: Musicals, Noirs, Westerns and Epics. These neat categorisations often lead us anal cineastes to try and cram the exceptions into one of those categories, rather than just let them be interesting anomalies. With its sometimes dark tone and the consistently wonderful, shadowy cinematography of John Alton as evidence, many argue for Reign of Terror to be considered a Noir, albeit an unusual one. Mann has a few borderline Noirs in his catalogue so I can see why the temptation to lump Reign of Terror in with them is strong for some. But, for me, Reign of Terror has too much levity and too breezy an overall atmosphere for it to nestle comfortably alongside Raw Deal. I’d call it more of a period Adventure film. Toss in a couple of swordfights and it could probably qualify as a Swashbuckler. As as a lover of both the Adventure film and the Swashbuckler, I was initially unwilling to sacrifice what I saw as these more fitting comparisons just for the sake of notching up another Noir for Mann. But as the number of Noirs I’ve seen grows and the broad parameters of the genre become more apparent, I’ve come to believe that there’s no reason that Reign of Terror should be sidelined in the Noir canon.
Reign of Terror is about as close to an opulent Historical Epic as a B-Movie can get. With limited resources and budget, Mann and his team have done a remarkable job of creating something with a sense of prestige to match many A-Pictures of the era without sacrificing that unique B-Movie energy. The costumes, production design, screenplay, cinematography, acting and direction are all top notch here. William Cameron Menzies’ production design brings the French Revolution alive before our eyes, bathed in Alton’s atmospheric cinematography and bolstered by Philip Yordan and Aeneas MacKenzie’s dialogue, which is often witty and sometimes just barely the right side of overripe. This ripeness is epitomised by an opening that is so dramatic it provokes laughter, with crackling flames framing grimacing faces as an omniscient narrator introduces the key players. But this bold style helps realise Reign of Terror’s Epic aspirations and is ferociously entertaining. Only once does the film really tumble over into corny, unfortunately in its closing beat. It’s not enough to scupper this magnificent film though.
The cast here is great, with Robert Cummings making for a likeable hero and Arlene Dahl fantastic as his ex-lover and coincidental comrade. Richard Basehart is back, channeling the same chilly energy as he did in He Walked By Night to create a sadistic, manipulative Robespierre. Arnold Moss steals every scene as chief of police Fouche, while the wonderful Beulah Bondi appears in a small role for which she is handed her own extremely tense set-piece as the narrative briefly shifts to make her the protagonist. The story is brutal when it needs to be but also has moments of comedy relief, bursts of terrific action and several suspenseful sequences which Mann milks for every drop of sweat available. I’ve been delighted by films several times during my chronological journey through Mann’s filmography but I’ve never be quite so surprised as I was by just how brilliant Reign of Terror turned out to be. I was expecting an enjoyable oddity but I got another classic.
1. THE TALL TARGET
With Winchester ‘73 and The Furies, Anthony Mann took a decisive step into A-Pictures with big stars and higher budgets. But before he committed to that fully with his famous run of seven more films with Winchester ‘73 star James Stewart, Mann had one more firecracker of a B-Movie left in him. The Tall Target has two major stars of yesteryear in Dick Powell and Adolphe Menjou but their careers were winding down at this point and neither was the box office draw they once were. Both men are reliably good in their roles and bring The Tall Target a prestige that was lacking in Mann’s rough-and-ready earlier Bs, without compromising the infectious energy that made those films so appealing.
The Tall Target tells the story of the alleged Baltimore Plot, an attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on his way to his inauguration. Powell plays the former New York Police Sergeant (named, in a bizarre coincidence, John Kennedy) who, having handed in his badge to his unsupportive Superintendent, must single-handedly try and prevent the assassination without the weight of authority behind him. Boarding the train to Baltimore, he immediately finds himself under threat when his associate turns up dead and a man claiming to be Kennedy appears wearing his coat and brandishing his train ticket. So begins a desperate attempt to evade conspirators, station masters and police officers and foil the plot, all amidst a train abuzz with political divisions regarding the new president.
I’ve always really enjoyed films set aboard trains and The Tall Target has the air of a darker take on The Lady Vanishes. While the cast all acquit themselves admirably, the real star of The Tall Target is Mann, whose skill as a director has fully emerged by this time. Working with cinematographer Paul Vogel, Mann creates a Noir-tinged world of shadowy stations and cramped compartments. Characters materialise like genies from billowing clouds of locomotive breath and fetishistic shots of the sleek black engine and its chuntering wheels mirror the forward thrust of the pacy plot. Though the script has a couple of fanciful moments (can you render a bullet useless by prying the lead out of it?), but it largely weaves together the action, mystery and political threads of the plot with great skill. While many films liked to portray Lincoln as an unimpeachably heroic saint, the discussions between the passengers in The Tall Target reflect just how divisive he was in certain areas of the country, and the portrayal of his supporters and opponents is fairly even handed. One prominently abolitionist character, for instance, is also a patronising busybody who assumes to know more about slavery than a young slave with whom she converses. The Tall Target might not be everyone’s idea of a 5 star film but, for me, it hits a Mann sweet-spot between the gritty grimness of his pure Noirs and the thrilling adventurousness of Reign of Terror or Winchester ‘73. The atmosphere is perfectly pitched and the presentation of that central steam engine is just glorious. I’m not a train enthusiast but I feel like I’m becoming a train film enthusiast and The Tall Target must be up there with the best of them.