A turning point in the gangster genre, ”G” Men is a significant picture for many reasons. For one, it made an effort to highlight the FBI over those Public Enemies so understandably captivating on depression-era movie screens. After the popularity of early 1930's classics like Little Caesar, Public Enemy and Scarface the Shame of a Nation in which Paul Muni spits out that machine gun with hyper-infectious "Damn it feels good to be a gangster" zeal, fears that film-goers might over-sympathize and glamorize gangsters created an outcry against cinematic underworld figures. Hence, “G” Men's valiant and violent heroes of the FBI.
Another point of interest is director William Keighley. Keighley cemented his semi-documentary style with “G” Men, an approach later seen in films like Bullets or Ballots and the remarkable noir, The Street With No Name. Keighley imbued “G “Men with a gritty, street level feel, extending and melding his rough and tumble style with the Warner Brothers look. And of course, there's James Cagney--that pugnacious bottle rocket whose genius talent and endless charisma takes hold of every movie he graces. And Cagney makes FBI work look (forgive the easy use of profanity) fucking cool.
It's also interesting that while “G” Men attempts to move away from the appeal of criminals, it's a shadier guy who proves invaluable to the story. As Drew Casper, Professor of American Film at USC, says of the movie, it's a case of “having your cake and eating it too.” So true. “G” Men was just as brutal, just as edgy and just as rat-a-tat glamorous as Scarface.
That “shady” guy is James “Brick” Davis (Cagney), a lawyer whose only job opportunities are steeped in the mob world. But after his old friend, a G Man, is murdered, Brick joins the good guys, training with amiable agent Hugh Farrell (Lloyd Nolan) and hothead Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong). Brick's receives some arched eyebrows based on his past, especially with his old ties to racketeer 'Mac' McKay (William Harrigan), but his inside information concerning the rackets aids fellow Feds and in the end, Brick, to go after the mob. Along the way he becomes interested in McCord's sister (Margaret Lindsay) and deals with a double crossing ex girlfriend (Ann Dvorak), now a gangster's wife.
And, to use the parlance of the times, the DVD is absolutely the bee's knee's. As usual with these Warner Brothers' collections, the extras offer all kinds of goodies. The film begins with the FBI propaganda prologue, added when the film was re-issued in the late 1940's. Also on board is a wonderful gallery of 1935 short subjects including a vintage newsreel, a comedy short “the Old Grey Mayor” starring Bob Hope, the cartoon “Buddy the Gee Man” and trailers for “G” Men and Devil Dogs of the Air.
There's also “How I Play Golf by Bobby Jones No 11: Practice Shots” and the incredibly fun “Things You Never See on the Screen: Breakdowns of 1935”--bloopers from that era. For some reason watching classic actors yell ”nuts!” after flubbing a line remains consistently hilarious.
Another terrific extra is the new featurette “Morality and the Code: A How-to- Manual for Hollywood” during which pre-code films are discussed along with the emerging censors. Filled with interesting insight from commentators as varied as film scholars to Martin Scorsese to Michael Madsen to Theresa Russell, it's an educational look at how much the films both changed and danced around the production code. “G” Men is obviously an excellent example of the latter. On top of all this, the film's engrossing commentary track is provided by film historian Richard Jewell.
A gripping, exciting and just plain bad-f-ing-ass picture with an electric performance by James Cagney, ”G” Men remains one of the greatest films about the FBI and a highlight of 1930's cinema. And Cagney...he makes me all fuzzy and buzzy.