Saturday, July 14, 2012

At the (old) movies: 'G Men'

Notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society....

A guy walks into a nightclub where a female singer he knows is performing a fairly elaborate number with the help of a singing and dancing chorus line.

A master shot shows the guy, the singer, the chorus line and the patrons, who are waving party favors and tossing what look like small Styrofoam balls at each other.

Cut to the singer, who playfully tosses a few of these spheres at the guy.

Cut to the guy, who smilingly tries to fends off this attack and gives the woman a shy little wave before he eventually leaves....

I've seen a lot of movies and read a lot (maybe too much) about movies, so when I watch a scene like this it often occurs to me that the shot of the singer tossing the little balls at the guy and the shot of the guy's reaction might well have been done at different times.

So that a) when the balls were tossed at the guy they might well have been tossed by a prop man and b) the guy might well have been smiling back and waving at the prop man, a stand-in -- or maybe nobody at all.

The fact that none of these thoughts occurred to me as I was watching this scene from "G Men" is a testament to the genius of James Cagney.

(And, of course, the brilliance -- and beauty -- of Ann Dvorak, at right, who plays Cagney's singing friend.)

In this 1935 Warner Bros. film, directed by William Keighley, Cagney plays Brick Davis, a lawyer who decides to join the Department of Justice as an agent after a friend, also a government agent, is gunned down.

One complication (from the Department of Foreshadowing) is that Brick's law school education was paid for by an older mobster named McKay in hopes that Brick would stay on the straight and narrow. (Yep, mob bosses do that sort of thing every day.)

You can pretty much write the rest of the movie yourself. Brick's boss, played by a post-Kong Robert Armstrong, is wary of him.

And Robert, of course, has a sister, played by Margaret Lindsay, whose ostensible opinion of Brick is, of course, at least as low as her brother's, though you know that deep down she Really Likes Brick. (And you know this partially because so many of the characters Lindsay was saddled with playing had all the depth of a wading pool.)

At one point Brick is teamed with a young agent played by Lloyd Nolan, making his film debut. But you sense right off that this character has the life expectancy of anyone who ever worked alongside Dirty Harry Callahan, and sure enough, Nolan is gone before too many reels have slipped through the projector, the victim of a gang led by a boss played by Barton MacLane, who would re-emerge years later as the general on "I Dream of Jeannie."

And who is MacLane's girlfriend? Yup, Ann Dvorak. (Sound of one shoe dropping.)

The plot builds to the climatic scene where the gang has kidnapped Lindsay and is holding her at a hotel run by (cue that other shoe) McKay, who doesn't want anything to do with the gang and winds up getting killed -- as does Dvorak.

Cagney winds up with Lindsay in what is supposed to be a happy ending -- but heck, we all know, don't we, that Dvorak would have been a much better match for him, or at least a lot more fun.

Although I've been kidding the plot, I don't mean to put this movie down. This kind of plot might have been fresh back then. Or maybe, to the people making it, it was already at least a little old-hat.

But there are just so many ways to do a genre movie, just as there are just so many ways to play football or baseball or some other sport. The enjoyment -- the thrill, even -- is in the execution, and the team behind "G Men" racks up a very respectable score.

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