Warner Home Video presents
G Men (1935)
"Come on, copper! Come on out and get it!"- Collins (Barton MacLane)
Stars: James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak, Robert Armstrong
Director: William Keighley
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:26m:12s
Release Date: 2006-07-18
DVD ReviewJames Cagney's stock in trade for decades was playing gangster, but every now and again he'd take a walk on the other side of the street, and that's what we have here, a rat-a-tat story that functions almost as an FBI founding myth. The movie crackles with streetwise dialogue and sharp performances—dramaturgically, there's no doubt as to who needs to be chastised for their malfeasance, and who's on the side of the angels, and, this being a very early Hays Code movie, it's no surprise that we see the triumph of light over darkness.
Cagney stars as Brick Davis, a guy from the streets whose heart is in the right spot. He's a lawyer, but being a straight arrow and not an ambulance chaser, his client list is a short one. His childhood pal Eddie has joined the Bureau, and wants Brick to sign up too—he hems and haws about it long enough for Eddie to get killed in the line of duty, and becomes one of J. Edgar Hoover's foot soldiers to right that terrible wrong. Brick is uniquely well suited to take on the task, because, with the exception of Eddie, all of his boyhood pals seem to be up to no good. Chief among these is Mac, who owns a series of speakeasies, and who has taken a liking to Brick—he's even become his great patron, financing Brick's education, because he just plain old likes the fellow. (It's hard not to see some homoerotic undertones here—Mac's heart as much as goes pitter pat every time Brick walks in the room, and they part like lovers, a soldier saying farewell to his girl before going off to war.) Mac's profession has the added benefit of allowing Brick to get to know some leggy showgirls, who perform the occasional musical number for us, and chief among them is Jean (Ann Dvorak). She's a prototypical gun moll, and in a classic reversal, mourns for Brick going over to the other side, another good soul lost to the good fight.
Certainly there's something a little precious in the setup—Brick is taken for a dandy and a dilettante by McCord, his boss in the service, who harbors all sorts of suspicions about the new recruit. Not helping matters is Brick's eye for McCord's sister, Kay (Margaret Lindsay), but for our purposes she fills out the good girl/bad girl dichotomy with Jean. Will Brick prove his mettle to the D.C. boys? If you take the boy out of the New York neighborhood, can you take the New York neighborhood out of the boy?
As with many early talkies, this one has an oddly static quality, and even though Cagney is the firecracker at the center of the piece, there's a bit more spirit with the bad guys. Edward Pawley is a snake as Leggett, a gangster whose signature gardenia boutonnière is a dead giveaway, wherever he goes; more menacing still is Barton MacLane as Collins, who swoops into Jean's good graces once Brick turns state's. Particularly interesting, too, is the development of the FBI—the movie carefully goes over historical matters, and dramatizes the moment when Federal agents were, finally, allowed to carry weapons. And they put them to good use—the film has a series of shootouts that would do Michael Mann proud. I don't doubt that this film will seem overly arch, even comical to audiences weaned on cop show shoot-'em-ups, and in comparison, G Men almost plays like opera. But it's got a bristling energy and creativity, and no one ever packed a pistol better than James Cagney.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: The source print looks frequently battered—black levels are actually decent, but there are some hideous scratches on much of this material. Granted, the movie is more than 70 years old now, and should be expected to show its age; still, watching this can occasionally be very unpleasant.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: There's a whole lot of hiss, typical of films of this period, and almost none of it is masked by overscoring, which is actually kind of a blessing.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Devil Dogs of the Air
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Richard Jewell
Extras Review: There's lots of good sharp stuff in the extras package, situating the movie very well in its historical context. USC Professor Richard Jewell provides an excellent commentary track, which is as much a history of the FBI as it is of the film genre. Much of his discussion is about Warner's pedigree as the studio for gangster pictures, and how a movie like this one (with its most notable gangster-picture actor in the lead) was intended to flip the paradigm. He also points out that the odd little prologue, which treats the feature like a training film, was added for the 1949 re-release of the movie, and didn't appear originally.
Dealing only incidentally with this movie, but very informative is Morality and the Code: A How-To Manual for Hollywood (20m:37s), which discusses the coming of the Hays Code in 1934, before which movies were deemed to be too brimming with sex and violence—the Code was the studios' way to ensure that censorship came from their own, and not from Washington. Jewell is among the interview subjects, as are film historians Eric Lax and Anthony Slide, but in many ways more intriguing are the observations from filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, Frank Miller, Talia Shire, Michael Madsen, Robert Evans and Theresa Russell. How I Play Golf, By Bobby Jones: No. 11—Practice Shots (10m:38s) is one in a continuing series of vintage shorts; this one features the golf great goofing on the course with a number of the stars of the feature, including Cagney. And very strange indeed is Things You Never See on the Screen (09m:57s), which seems to be a Warners '30s gag reel. It's an assembly of actors like Rudy Vallee and Pat O'Brien flubbing their lines, and ad libbing such verboten and racy language as "goddamnit" and "nuts!" There's not a clue here as to who assembled this, but for its time, this had to have been a saucy little reel.
Finally, there's a 1935 edition of Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create what the moviegoing experience would have been like for the original audience. It starts with a trailer for another Cagney title and a newsreel with some very Ness-like Feds on the case of some bootleggers in New Jersey. Next is The Old Gray Mayor, in which Bob Hope tries to convince the mayor to give him his daughter's hand in marriage—it's very much a vaudeville, exploding cigars and all. And the sequence ends with a Looney Tunes short, the tale of Buddy the Gee Man,, a little fellow on the case at Sing Sing, who warms up what would soon become a porcine signature closing line: "That's all, folks!"
Extras Grade: A+
Final CommentsA terrific old-school cop movie, one that helped establish the template for generations of feature films and TV shows, with a crackling performance by the incomparable James Cagney at its fulcrum. A pretty swell extras package, too.
Jon Danziger 2006-07-19