Film Friday: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann

The first installment of Film Friday in 2014 takes a closer at the just-released The Crime Films of Anthony Mann by Max Alvarez. Mann, who is known primarily for his Westerns, directed fourteen electrifying crime thrillers between 1942 and 1951, among them such towering achievements in film noir as T-Men, Raw Deal, and Side Street.

The book provides readers with analysis of rare documents, screenplays, story treatments, and studio memoranda and reveals detailed behind-the-scenes information on pre-production and production on the Mann thrillers. Alvarez uses rare and newly available sources to explore the creation of these noir masterworks. Along the way, the book exposes secrets and solves mysteries surrounding the mercurial director and his remarkable career, which also included Broadway and early live television.

Below we take a closer look at the 1947 crime thriller T-Men, of which Mann said, “This is what I really call my first film. I was responsible for its story, for its structure, its characters and for actually making it. This was my first real break towards being able to make films the way I wanted.” 

The Bathhouse Murder scene between Wallace Ford and Charles McGraw in T-Men proved to be very influential scene. Below is the scene and Alvarez’s analysis.

Mann was also rightfully pleased with Wallace Ford’s on-screen demise as The Schemer, staged in a steam bath. The baths are a recurring theme in T-Men, each depiction building in intensity and providing Mann and Alton with an ideal economical lighting and composition strategy. Alton, an enthusiast of live fog for dramatic atmosphere, compared the steam of Turkish baths with fog effects:
Fog is particularly suitable for outstanding light effects in the form of shafts of light. Backlight should be carefully employed, because the rays of lamps pick up easily. If possible the entire field of vision should be covered with backlight instead of just an arc ray here and there.
The Hollywood Athletic Club served as the key location for the steam bath segments. To prevent fogging, the lens of the camera had special glass plates treated with glycerin attached. According to publicity accounts, never to be taken at face value, Mann was dissatisfied with the levels of steam during a scene with Dennis O’Keefe. Attendants indicated that the pipes could not provide any more for the scene:
The ingenious Mr. Mann then ordered a cake of dry ice placed at O’Keefe’s bare feet. A jet of air was directed to blow gently upon the ice. In no time at all, a satisfactory facsimile of steam, actually carbon dioxide, was wafting across the room. “Feels kind of cold against my feet,” complained O’Keefe, whose body was covered with perspiration. 
That’s all right,” Mann encouraged him. “We’ll get the shot in a minute.” Mann was almost right. The scene was filmed in a minute—or maybe two or three. But by that time, it was too late. O’Keefe’s toes were frost-bitten.
Moxie’s killing of The Schemer clearly influenced a gory steam room murder in David Cronenberg’s Russian mob thriller, Eastern Promises (2007). In T-Men, however, Mann constructs agonizing tension without blood, brutality, and graphic nudity. The killer’s shadow envelops the victim’s face amidst all the steam, tension building in alternating close-ups, low- and high-angles exquisitely lit through the steam, as The Schemer gradually realizes Moxie’s intentions. The dialogue is appropriately minimalist and Paul Sawtell’s music evokes a dream-like state of subdued intensity before starting to build.