MUBI is showing Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947) from October 25 - November 24 and Raw Deal (1948) from October 26 - November 25, 2017 in the United States as part of the double feature Anthony Mann Noirs
It’s all about how it’s done. That’s a central belief in cinephilia, which, when it comes to genre, is anti-exclusionist. It’s virtually anathema to dismiss any specific genre, and for many good reasons beside the primacy of the director. Rarely do you even read cinephile critics state preferences; I’m all for minimizing them in practice, perhaps for the sake of adventure above all. But I cannot tell a lie: the crime film is by far my favorite type of mainstream movie. It exists in the inviting ground between fantasy and reality; westerns are historical and abstract, sci-fi movies are conjectural, musicals are frankly fantastical, horror films are blatantly outlandish, but in every city in the world, people rob banks, plot on spouses, deal contraband and pull triggers. Crime films beckon you towards the real and fearsome; besides the built-in narrative tension, there’s often a suspense within the broader imagination because they speak so loudly to present-day human potential, inviting the viewer to think about what violent dangers could land on them, what may greet them in the morning paper, what they may themselves be capable of doing.
But again: how it’s done. Of the various types of crime flick, film noirs have proven to be spectacularly marketable in the age of home video and frequent restoration. They glamourize morbidity; they appeal to human fatalism; they’re often charged with sexual suspense; and, generally speaking, they’re marked by some of the best dialogue ever to have been written for the movies. One aspect of the noir that’s most compelling is its heavy artifice. How these movies are done is with an emphatic stylization that, besides being thrilling in itself, makes them ripe for examination. And perhaps no noirs are more congenial to the analytic impulse than those of director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton.
The best of these few films, T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), are broadly collaborative works, with an overlap of editors, composers and one screenwriter; but they stand out as the work of two key personalities. Critic and theorist André Bazin’s old contrast between the image and reality is bridged by their partnership. Alton loved to impose artifice; Mann loved unified space, and the fusion of these sensibilities created a visual richness and density that’s almost unsurpassed.
T-Men tells the story of two Treasury agents (Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) who go undercover to bust a gang of currency forgers; it’s about journeying into harm’s way, and an early shot establishes this theme with wonderful blatancy. Covered by a rightward pan of nearly 180 degrees, a man walks off a city street and into an alley. We see the street first; the man is there in medium long shot. He approaches the angled camera for a medium close-up; the filmmakers pan to follow but let him drift into long shot as he moves down into the alley, which is darkened at its beginning and heavily lit at its further reaches. The visualization of theme is precise, even obvious. There are several other shots in the movie in which the pan is used to reconfigure characters in this manner; the camera stays planted as it turns to follow them, and they get smaller as they move into danger. Also notable about this early shot is its equation of light with greater risk. The man is heading to a confrontation with murder, and elsewhere in the film we see foreground shadow as protected ground for the human figure. It’s common for safety and danger to exist within the same shot. This is a movie of long takes; editing within scenes is used as sparingly as possible, and often it seems like a last resort.
Cutting is much more frequent in Raw Deal, which, despite its stylization, is the more visually conventional and—relatedly, I believe—more moving of the two movies. The glaring chiaroscuro is there, and, as in the earlier film, there are shots that lay out the dynamics of a scene in bold letters. An early one shows convict Joe (O’Keefe again) and his friend Ann (Marhsa Hunt) facing each other through the gate in a jailhouse visiting room. They’re precisely mirrored in the shot: each half of the bisected frame features a prison guard and a ceiling light in corresponding background positions. But images this rigidly composed are rarer than in T-Men.
Quite often, cutting is used when a unified image would have been possible to convey the action. There’s a tense scene in the woods: with the help of his girl Pat (Claire Trevor), Joe has broken out of jail, and Ann is along for the ride as a captive. The trio is having a bit of respite in the forest, cooking over a small fire. An armed park ranger comes on the scene; Joe, gun out, takes cover behind a tree. There’s a wide shot with him shadowed in the foreground, ready to kill, and the other three talking in the light—once again, the safe zone for the main character is in the shadows, with danger more legible than security. Mann doesn’t stick with this image, though: he breaks down the scene to articulate psychology—most notably, the fear and calculation of Ann as she tries to talk the ranger away. The key interest here is in deep emotion and contrasting individual psychologies; Hollywood has nearly perfected the art of rendering those things, and here as elsewhere they’re served by editing as much as anything else.
Raw Deal is about conflict within and between people: Ann’s attraction to Joe rivals her disgust for his ways; Pat hates Ann but empathizes with her; Joe has strong feelings for both but can’t avoid using them callously—and that’s just the beginning of the tangled psychology. It would be hard to portray this stuff in the long-take mode of T-Men, and even harder to generate heavy emotion.
Both films are master classes in composition; they rest firmly in the tradition of the American cinema of the 1940s. But the earlier movie is, for me at least, considerably less poignant—and not just because of its docudrama mode, which entails impersonal voiceover narration and a clinical approach to plotting. All that imagery sustained in long take: it serves the senses and the intellect more than the heart. In Raw Deal, the richness and complexity are in the story, the acting and the cutting as much as in the compositions, and for me that makes it the superior film.
But I could never ignore those compositions: the four-character shot in the forest; the rural exteriors paired with the ghostly, menacing score to create a sense of agoraphobia and doom; Pat’s standing in the darkness of a ship’s cabin as her conscience finally wakes itself. Alton-Mann was a Hailey’s Comet of Hollywood collaboration; the images those two created together are among the most imposing, most beautiful and most dynamic the industry has seen.
When it comes to the American crime film, we’re living in an age of decline. Violence lives in the horror movie and the bombastic blockbuster; it’s far away from the plausibility of the darkened pool hall, the rain-slicked alley, the backroom gambling spot. For me—and, I assume, many others—this is a major loss, but crime buffs can find solace in streaming and DVDs and Blu-rays. This is an age of expanded currency, where the movie past has equal footing with the present: on any given night, a minimally resourceful viewer can dip into cinema from every period of its existence. And few periods are richer than the 40s: it’s the decade of the freshly liberated camera, of talkies shaking off their early awkwardness, of great innovations in storytelling. And, in Hollywood at least, they’re the golden age of mise en scène. You can see it in T-Men and Raw Deal. In their images lie so many of the promises of cinema: fear given shape; thought rendered in vision; life distorted before our eyes to make it truer, more communicable, more wondrous.