The T-Men are what is more officially known as the United States Treasury agents, that brave band who enforce the laws against counterfeiting, among other things, and here is a composite case to familiarise the audience with the kind of danger they routinely place themselves in. It was drawn from the so-called Shanghai Paper Case where it was suspected gangsters in Detroit were beginning to flood America with fake bills, so two agents, Dennis O'Brien (Dennis O'Keefe) and Tony Genaro (Alfred Ryder) were chosen to go undercover and infiltrate the gang to break it apart from within. To do so, they had to train hard, memorising pages of information, until they were ready...
Anthony Mann, before he made the tough Westerns in the nineteen-fifties that secured his name among film buffs, had already been generating a cult following in the previous decade thanks to his work in film noir, often in partnership with cinematographer John Alton whose innovations with making the best of lower budgets had crafted some of the most striking imagery in American B-movies. They operated so well together that many regard it as a pity it didn't happen more often, but Alton was a difficult man thanks to his perfectionism and eccentricity; he did however get on well with Mann, and they were planning to reunite in the sixties just before Mann passed away.
You can see why the director admired Alton, as once we have the dry opening narration from a Treasury official out of the way, we are plunged into a thriller scenario where a snitch is being traced for a meeting with an agent, but is gunned down in the dark side streets before he can give up his vital information. The crunching gear change between that dull first couple of minutes to when we are suddenly in some nightmare underworld of criminality is so arresting, so to speak, that it alerts you that no matter what the plot to this one may have been, it was worth sticking around simply to slowly drink in the rich atmosphere and appreciate those exquisitely manufactured visuals.
T-Men looks like perfect pulp cinema - looks like it, but does not necessarily play out that way, though it was notable for a total lack of sentimentality. This left you under no illusions that the crime syndicates threatening the fabric of American society had no qualms about turning to murder to protect their interests, and a late on development was still pretty surprising for those who thought old movies were corny and safe. O'Keefe was a decent match for this material, as he could move his persona between easygoing charmer and an outright tough guy: it was the latter he was asked to perform here, doubly so as his undercover pose requires him to convince some very unpleasant men that he can be just as savage as they are. Not only that, but he has to visit every Turkish bath in California.
Well, it seems that way anyway, but there was some ever so slightly camp interest in seeing Agent O'Brien having to don a tiny towel and sit about in steam rooms simply to identify the "Schemer" who sports a scar on their shoulder, and as luck would have it this man happens to attend the baths where said scar can be easily seen, assuming O'Brien has the right location. This Schemer (his character name) was played by Wallace Ford, an actor who suffered mightily in his upbringing but usually played the sort of roles O'Keefe was getting - yet Ford was now into his middle age, and a homelier appearance had well-settled onto his frame and features. There were other familiar faces to vintage cinema fans, though Lost in Space's June Lockhart was probably the most, here playing Genaro's wife whose meeting with him is unexpectedly haunting. Adopting the then-novel approach of a police procedural, with no-nonsense narration to boot, T-Men may have looked better than it played, but as a tough, uncompromising thriller it did its job. Music by Paul Sawtell.