At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

T-MEN (Classic Flix Edition)

By • Nov 27th, 2017 •

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BluRay review and interview by Roy Frumkes

I put on the Classic Flix restoration of T-MEN and was witness to a true demonstration of alchemy.  I’d seen the film over the years, courtesy of companies like KINO, and I understood that the image was degraded, but I assumed not dreadfully so.  I thought I understood the working/aesthetic relationship between director Anthony Mann and Lighting DP John Alton as seen on the screen.  I’d certainly read enough about it.

But this disc is revelation time.  They may have been a team, but Alton is not necessarily re-enforcing Mann’s direction as it had always seemed; he is actually, to a substantial degree, working against it, conjuring up an experimental visual overlay that often has nothing to do with the narrative, or for that matter the directorial style.    

I can only guess that it was a sly act of support through counterpoint.  Mann’s approach, radical for the times, and hot on the heels of Hathaway’s procedural noir THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (Sept, 1945), was faux documentary, the film introduced by an actual Treasury Department official (Elmer Lincoln Irey) who lectures us on the many vital jobs being performed by that branch of the government, following which we are allowed in on a particularly rigorous case (an amalgam of several according to commentary track denizen Alan Rode), embarked on by treasury agent Dennis O’Brien (actor Dennis O’Keefe, too nondescript for Noir glory but just right for Mann’s design).  But would audiences buy into this relatively new genre approach? 

Alton – same film, same story – beefs up almost every frame he lays his gifted hands on, working with deep focus, with extreme angles, with terrifying pits of darkness,  with dry ice and steam, with lighting designs, all intended to resuscitate the often quiet governmental procedural that Mann was delivering to him.  Those surreal close-ups, for instance, I interpret as Mann’s concessions to Alton’s overpowering visual ideas (they don’t occur in the Jimmy Stewart westerns, nor in the Samuel Bronston epics).    Rode might beg to disagree, but I don’t see Mann’s and Alton’s separate and very apparent contributions as 50:50.  More like 70/30 with Alton the dominant force.  No wonder the studio bigwigs were wary of his shenanigans, always trying to shut him down and turn the lights back on.  Fortunately for film history, and for us, he persevered.

You might think of Kubrick while watching T-MEN, with its wild use of counterpoint:  the Blue Danube background score for the ship floating in space in 2001,  or the stratosphere-fuel-up title sequence to the tune of ‘Try a Little Tenderness,’ as the atomic-bomb-wielding plane heads for its target to the strains of ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’ both in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE.  In those cases, Kubrick was clearly in charge of both aesthetic ideas.  But I can’t remember two filmmakers on the same team functioning so entirely at odds with one another, let alone on a project wherein the wildly contradictory approaches actually work, as we have here!  You simply have to feast your eyes on this restoration to believe it.

Curious about the jaw-dropping quality of the restoration, I jumped at the opportunity to chat with David Kawas, the head of Classic Flix.  A genial person who began as a film aficionado, then moved (since 2007) into retail, he is carefully putting together a library composed of the results of his searches for the best materials on less-than-stellar-up-till-now releases of important films.  For instance, in the case of T-MEN, his search for superior negative material led him to the BFI, where he went through several elements before finding a fine grain that represented the film as it was meant to be seen.  He then licensed the rights from SHOUT! FACTORY – more like ‘rescued’ – since SHOUT!, if and when it would have released the film, would not have scoured the globe for the best materials extant. Even the TCM print was both damaged and less sharp than Classic Flix’s element. Then there were stability issues, possibly inherent, which is where 30+% of the restoration budget was used.

Back to the review: Rode makes his case, over and over in the commentary, that Mann allowed Alton to do what he did, in fact insisted on it.  Having produced ten feature films myself, I don’t quite see it that way.  Incidentally, commentator Rode, who also produced the supplemental featurettes, is a tad monotone, try as he might to rev up his talk, though it does feel appropriate as an accompaniment to the often low-key docu-drama’s directorial design.  Delivery aside, his compilation of facts is pretty astounding, and a lot of fun.  As co-commentator for HE WALKED BY NIGHT, which he assays with his date (affable film historian Julie Kirgo) he definitely comes alive.  ‘Date-commentaries aren’t such a bad idea.

Inside the plastic jacket is a 24-page pamphlet containing an essay about the film.  Either I’m going blind or the font was a bit too diminutive, exacerbated by overlaying a blue-gray caste to the lettering (HE WALKED BY NIGHT’s essay uses a bright white type-face, which helps considerably).  Good information, though.  And the visuals in the pamphlet are wonderful.  An Italian poster by Anselmo Ballester (I needed a lupe to read that) is more luridly noir than its US equivalent, and reminded me just how good Mary Meade was in her limited but standout role. 

Classic Flix is going after more of the Mann/Alton films from this early period (HE WALKED BY NIGHT, mentioned above, is about to debut as this review hits the internet).  Let’s see if there are more revelations to be found in the outcomes of their directorial/cinematographic friction.


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