One thing I’ll never fully understand is how film buffs, cineastes, filmmakers and casual movie fans can overlook old gangster movies, and not only that, the attitude seems to be among film enthusisasts in general that the gangster movie, or “crime film” as they were generally called in the ’30s, was a disposable and irrelevant genre. For instance, I watched a documentary about film noirs where people sat around talking about how great film noirs were, and how trivial gangster films were in comparison. They went on to say that Double Indemnity (1944) was the first film-noir, thereby making sure we wouldn’t confuse James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson pictures from the ’30s as film-noir.
I’ve recently been on a gangster movie kick, and have watched several in the past year. If you’re new to the genre, I’d recommend The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), the later gangster classic White Heat (1949), and, just for fun, I’d also recommend the rare and peculiar gangster-comedy Lady Killer (1933). Today I’d like to write about another interesting gangster flick that’s a little different: G-Men (1935).
The reason why I say this is different is because it stars gangster movie staple James Cagney, but this time he’s on the right side of the law, playing a young, dashing, and feckless FBI agent who has to hunt for gangsters.
G-Men is a more interesting and artful film than you’d imagine. Yes, there’s plenty of punches thrown, shootouts, and damsels in distress, but there’s also an intriguing psychological/philosophical side to the story as well.
G-Men begins by introducing the hero named Brick Davis (played by James Cagney) realizing he might not be cut out to be a lawyer. He’s then visited by an old friend of his who happens to be a police officer. In an easily forseeable twist, a few minutes later in the movie Davis’ friend is gunned down by seedy gangsters, prompting Davis to enlist with the FBI to settle the score. Remember, this was released in the 30s when such a twist wasn’t the common cliche we know it as today.
It’s then revealed that Davis himself came from the streets, and that his college tuition was paid by a benevolent mob boss named Collins whom Davis is still chummy with. Now Davis has to give up his former life and walk the straight line, which provides the movie with it’s central conflict.
One of the best scenes in the film comes early on when Davis decides to go visit an old ‘friend’ Jean Morgan (played by ’30s star Ann Dvorak), who happens to be a night club singer in a gangster hangout. When Davis enters, a lavish party is underway, complete with Morgan singing alongside a bevy of chorus girls. Anyone who’s watched a lot of classic films knows that tons of old films feature one or two musical numbers, even if the film isn’t a musical. It was the studio’s way of keeping people happy, trying to put a bit of everything into every movie. In G-Men, unlike a lot of other old action movies, the musical number doesn’t seem tacked on, and instead plays a big role in the story. The important thing to take away from the scene is that it resembles a dream–a dream that epitomizes the life of crime for Cagney. All the women are dancing and singing, and all of the men are drinking champagne in tuxedoes. It’s an interesting scene also for the way it’s edited. Before that scene, the movie seems shadowy and joyless, but then it transitions in the blink of an eye to a big glitzy production.
It’s clear that Morgan and Davis had a thing going on at one point, but the details are never specified. Since she’s in with the gangsters, leaving a life of crimes means leaving her. There’s a brief scene that may interest film buffs: the movie came out in 1935, when the censorship code was in effect in Hollywood; in one scene, the FBI want to interrogate Morgan but she won’t say a word, then Davis offers to question her, and another agent asks why and Davis says it’s because “I know her,” followed by a pause, suggesting he means ‘know’ in the biblical sense–an innuendo that was able to get past the censors.
Something highly innovative happens when Davis transitions into the FBI. Suddenly he meets a new benefactor named Jeff McCord, who’s his boss at the FBI. Here’s the interesting piece of symbolism: Jeff McCord looks and acts a lot like Davis’ old mob boss Collins! I’m positive this was intentional on the filmmaker’s part. Collins was Davis’ father figure back on the streets, and now McCord is his substitute here at the FBI. So again, Davis is pitted with a hard choice. The doubling doesn’t end there. Shortly after joining up with the FBI, Davis becomes attracted to McCord’s daughter Kay–who looks very similar to Jean. So Davis’ two lives are shown as mirroring each other!
Later this doubling is emphasized when both Jean Morgan and Kay McCord visit Davis at the same time. Look at the picture below.
On the left hand side there’s Jean Morgan dressed in black, and on the right Kay McCord comes in completely in white. The movie has a dreamlike logic to it, and here Davis is presented with his conflict in black and white.
A short time later, Jean Morgan goes to one of the gangsters’ secret hideouts and finds Kay McCord bound and gagged in the backseat of a car. Notice how in the picture below Kay looks like Jean’s reflection? They’re both practically dressed the same, except with Jean in a white hat so the audience know who’s who. If this is dream logic, then the lines are starting to blur.
Apart from the mirroring of the plot, there’s other reasons to watch G-Men. One highlight would be a scene where Davis and his men shoot huge amounts of bullets into a cabin full of gangsters, a scene based on the real-life incident when the FBI tracked down Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger to a secluded cabin (an event also portrayed in the recent Brian De Palma movie, Public Enemies).
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G-Men is available on DVD on Netflix.