Monday, January 31, 2011

G Men vs. Infernal Affairs/the Departed

Earlier, I mentioned seeing the Hong Kong picture Infernal Affairs and its US remake the Departed. Both films concern a pair of police officers, one good, one rogue. The rogue cop is the cat's paw of a mobster who wants an operative working for him on the inside. The good cop works undercover for a respectable detective and had to be drummed out of the force to seem like a criminal-in-the-making. The good cop winds up working against the mobster who employs the rogue cop, so the films create some tension around whether one of the cops will realize which side the other is really working for.

Now, ultimately the rogue cop is out for himself, not his mobster benefactor and that's what brings me to William Keighley's G Men, starring James Cagney.

By 1935, Cagney was already infamous for his gangster roles at Warner Bros, with his fairly cold-blooded role in the Public Enemy becoming one of his all-time best-remembered performances. After a few years taking more gangster picture parts than anything else, G Men was a big change for Cagney; the content made it more-or-less another gangster picture, but this time Cagney was playing a proper protagonist: an FBI agent.

Cagney plays James "Brick" Davis, a struggling lawyer in the 1920s. Coming from a poor background, Brick only afforded law school because of his benefactor, MacKay ("Mac"), portrayed by character actor William Harrigan. MacKay runs a nightclub and is involved in some shady enterprises, but although Brick could use some extra money, he always refuses to work for Mac, preferring to remain legitimate. In fact, this is why Mac paid for Brick's education - he wanted to help out someone from a similar background, but always hoped his protegee would make it as an honest man.

One of Brick's friends is murdered by the mob, spurring Brick to join the FBI for revenge. Brick has to keep his relationship with Mac secret to gain admittance to the department and has one last friendly meeting with Mac.

Mac: "They want you in Washington."
Brick: "Yeah. I'm leaving tomorrow morning. That puts me on the other side of the fence from you, Mac."
Mac: "That's where you oughta be."
Brick: "Yes, but I'm out to get you! You, and everybody else in your racket! And if they assign me to go after you, I've got to use everything I know about you!"
Mac: "You've got to play ball with them, Brick. Go to it. You won't get me, Brick. I'm going to quit. I've been thinking about it for a long time."

Although Brick and MacKay's unusual friendship is a minor part of the film - which is mostly about Brick clashing with his superior in the department and leading fights with the mob - to me, this was the highlight of the film because it stands out so sharply from other law enforcement pictures of the time. Well into the 1950s, pro-law films portrayed lawmen as virtual paragons of justice and their opponents as the lowest scum of humanity. But this picture, one of the first gangster films post-Hays Code to take the law's side still finds space to treat some of the crooks sympathetically.

Of course, even the sympathetic crooks meet a bad end in classic Hollywood pictures, be it Scarface or High Sierra. So it is with Mac, who tries to cut his ties to organized crime, but his old associates choose his lodge in the woods as their hideout from the FBI, taking him hostage. When Brick leads the FBI to raid the lodge, Mac is used as a human shield and takes a bullet from Brick's gun. After the carnage, Brick realizes he's fatally wounded his oldest friend, but the dying Mac doesn't blame Brick, delivers some parting words of encouragement, then dies.

"It wasn't your fault. You're okay, kid. I was thinkin' about you the other day, wondering when you were coming up for that..."

In a sense, the all-but-irredeemable rogue cop of Infernal Affairs/the Departed is a step back in motion pictures to Hays Code-era unsympathetic villains. For that matter, the benefactor mobster in both films is repugnant, unlike G Men's Mac.

I don't really have a point to make with these observations...I simply found it interesting. There's life in those old gangster pictures yet!

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