03 April 2009

Movie Review: “G” Men

“G” Men (1935)
Directed by William Keighley. Starring James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak, Robert Armstrong, Barton Maclane, Lloyd Nolan.

I’m settling into a sort of Public Enemies symposium, running through the history of the “Public Enemies” phase of American crime (1933–34) and the films both from and later about the era. This will serve as a build-up to the July release of the Michael Mann film based on Bryan Burrough’s nonfiction book. “G” Men came out the year after the conclusion of the FBI’s first “War on Crime,” and the film has enormous historical importance for the Bureau itself. I’ll let Burrough give you the background:
It wasn’t Hoover or even [magazine author] Courtney Cooper, however, who created the G-man legend. It was Hollywood. Just days after the [Ma and Fred] Barker killings, word reached Hoover that Warner Brothers was developing a script called G-Men. The studio billed it as “The First Great Story of the Men Who Waged America’s War on Crime.” Neither Hoover nor Homer Cummings was wild about the idea. . . . G-Men was released that April with a massive publicity campaign. The movie, starring Jimmy Cagney as a young FBI agent battling a vicious band of kidnappers modeled on Dillinger, Floyd, and Nelson, was a smash. In just days it did what reality hadn’t, enshrining Hoover as the symbolic head of the nation’s crime-fighting forces. G-Men was so successful it spawned seven more FBI-themed movies by the end of the year. . . . Overnight, Hoover and the FBI were crowned the national’s supreme symbols of justice and strength. (Chapter 17, 517–18)
That’s a heavy historical responsibility for a movie to carry. “G” Men (that’s the actual on-screen title) also shows the change in Hollywood filmmaking because of the strictures of the Breen Code that cracked down on the wilder early gangster films like Scarface, Little Caesar, and The Public Enemy. Hollywood could still make gangster films with tough guys like Cagney, but the stars had to switch to performing as the tough-guy lawman instead of law-breaker. Suddenly, The Public Enemy himself was hunting down the public enemies.

“G” Men delivers a fictional story of the early days of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but using inspiration from the newspapers. Warner Bros. loved these sort of “ripped from the headlines” stories, and of all the studios of the Golden Age, Warner best knew its way around the crime movie. (Oddly, the best gangster film of the 1930s, Scarface, came not from Warner Bros. but from Howard Hughes and RKO.) The background that Bureau members originally couldn’t carry guns and that most of its recruits were college boys with legal educations is accurate, but the Bureau comes across as far more competent in its war against crime than it actually was; no wonder J. Edgar Hoover loved the movie. For example, the film’s fictional version of the Battle of Little Bohemia in Manitowish, WI, has the Bureau triumphing in gunning down the villains hidden inside a Wisconsin inn, instead of utterly botching the job and killing only innocent people. (See the 1973 movie Dillinger for a variant completely inaccurate version.) The movie does have its hero, “Brick” Davis, accidentally kill his old mentor during the shootout, McKay (William Harrigan), but that’s about all the movie will give to the Bureau’s and Melvin Purvis’s catastrophic failure at Little Bohemia. “G” Men also has an ersatz Kansas City Massacre that causes the FBI to make its official announce of a War on Crime, except the criminals in the movie’s “massacre” don’t accidentally gun down the person they are trying to rescue.

Cagney’s “Brick” Davis seems like a glamorized version of Melvin Purvis. Davis is a young, idealistic lawyer who gives up his unsuccessful practice after his buddy in the Bureau, Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), gets shot down while trying to make an arrest. Davis, under the supervision of Jeff McCord (King Kong’s Robert Armstrong), goes after the clan of criminals responsible for the killing. These gangsters are mostly an uninteresting lot of robbers who lack the charisma of the Dillingers and Baby Face Nelsons of reality. The movie depends for drama more on how Davis’s personal life is tied into these gangsters (his mentor McKay once was their boss) and his relationship to the female leads. This is definitely the Hollywood influence: weaving interpersonal relationships between heroes and villains for dramatic irony and moral crossroads. Hollywood romanticizing also crops up in the inclusion of two female leads, McCord’s sister Kay (Margaret Lindsay), and former gangster moll-turned informant Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak, almost as sexy here as in Scarface), both of whom get romantically tangled with Davis.

Even though “G” Men follows the rules of the Breen Code—the heroes triumph, the criminals have no appeal—it’s still a violent and explosive film, giving the audience the thrills they would expect from a “gangster picture.” It’s exciting all the way through, and manages to avoid overt preachiness while obeying the Law of the Censors. “G” Men doesn’t have the atmosphere of the crime classics that came right before it; director Keighley is no Howard Hawks, but he does keep the film revving. I miss the exuberant moral ambiguity of the earlier gangster epic—and we’re a few years away from the philosophical complexity of film noir that would re-write the American crime film from the bottom up with a literary basis. Also, Cagney as the hero isn’t as fun as Cagney the crazed killer hitting Mae Clarke with grapefruit. But you’ll have a hard time disliking “G” Men. And with all its historical and cinematic importance, there’s no reason to miss it.

The print on the DVD is from a 1949 re-release to celebrate the FBI’s twentieth anniversary. The re-release includes a new prologue tacked onto the front which shows how much the Bureau embraced this film as the “official” history of the War on Crime. An FBI instructor gives a speech to a class of new recruits, and then fires up the projector to show them (and us) “G” Men. It’s a strange intro, but does provide immediate historical content for the movie—and you get to compare the fashions of the two periods. I don’t understand why the FBI would have recruits watch a film where the main agent defies his boss’ orders consistently, however.

The DVD features a detailed historical commentary from Rick Jewell (although he makes the mistake of claiming that the term “G-man” came from Machine Gun Kelly, when it seems his wife Kathryn actually came up with the phrase), and a fascinating documentary about the development of the Breen Code and the change in the American crime film in the mid-1930s. If you have an interest in the gangster films of the time, the “G” Men disc is essential viewing.

Finally, I want Cagney’s wardrobe in this film. His double-breasted suits are killer.