Sep. 27, 2005
'G' Men (1935)
Grade: 67/100

Director: William Keighley
Stars: James Cagney, Robert Armstrong, Margaret Lindsay

What it's about. Street smart law graduate James Cagney becomes an FBI agent, and proves his worth to his boss McCord (Robert Armstrong) and McCord's frosty sister, Kay (Margaret Lindsay). Cagney helps bust a criminal gang led by a cagey acquaintance, Collins (Barton MacLane).

How others will see it. Little tough guy Cagney is in top form, and the snappy Warner Bros. production covers over various problems with the story, which will be flogged to death shortly. Classic film buffs in need of authentic thirties crime drama (a Warners specialty) need look no further, although Dead End (1937) is certainly better. In short, a fast-paced and action-packed star vehicle with more than its share of shootouts.

How I felt about it. It is necessary to beat up this perfectly good film in order to demonstrate that, like most films, it isn't great. Ann Dvorak is clearly lip-syncing in her big dance number. Crime kingpin McKay (William Harrigan) picks a coincidental occasion to retire to Wisconsin. Kay is predictably hot, single, and available, and must be conquered. Leggett (Edward Pawley) sticks to his gardenia-a-day habit even though it leads the law right to him. Cagney knows all the gangsters "but never worked for them." The gangsters, on the run, pick the publicly-known cabin of a former mob boss as their hideout.

The formulas are ubiquitous. Crime doesn't pay. Guy meets and wins girl. The new kid proves himself to mentors. Squealers get theirs. You can't leave the gang. The pretty girl in peril. The cold-blooded crooks. The heroic FBI agents. Crime still doesn't pay.

But despite it all, 'G' Men is a winner. Much of its charm, of course, is due to Cagney, an intense and charismatic actor who is quick to get the sympathy of the audience. He's never going to flip big Lloyd Nolan from a jujitsu position. He'll get thrown on the mat each and every time. But the kid dusts himself off to come back for more. He's a scrapper with heart, and that's why Cagney was the Great American actor, at least up through White Heat, which, by the way, is superior.

The Hollywood production code went into effect in 1934, but had little impact on 'G' Men, made shortly later. Oh, it forced Ann Dvorak to be wed to her gangster tyrant, and it meant that Cagney's relationship to respectable nurse Kay would remain platonic, at least until church bells should ring. And of course, it meant that all the gangsters would come to a bad end.

But then, these were all facets of Warners crime dramas to begin with. The Production Code had no effect on the violence. Numerous men, good and (mostly) bad, are gunned down. And the gangsters are rotten all the way through, save for the too good to be true McKay.