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Anthony Mann was a poverty-row director with ambition when he transformed this story of undercover Treasury agents (based on a collection of true cases) into a moody, alienated drama about two lawmen living a shadowed life in the underworld where a blown cover means death. Square-jawed Dennis O'Keefe, a former leading man turned beefy B movie tough guy, and Alfred Ryder star as the titular T-men who take over a counterfeiting investigation when their predecessor is killed, posing as street thugs to infiltrate their way into the gang and living the dangerous life of the gangster to the hilt. The documentary-style realism, with its authoritative narrator, location shooting, and stock-shot interludes of shuffling papers and laboratory testing, is given a nightmarish dimension with stark sets lit in claustrophobic shadows, creating an abstract, eerie emptiness. Penned by John C. Higgins (who wrote Mann's previous film, Railroaded!), and shot by the brilliant cinematographer John Alton, T-Men is raw in comparison to the smoother, more handsome studio noirs such as The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past. Saddled with often awkward dialogue and hackneyed narration, this low-budget gem derives its power from the brutal violence (often offscreen but no less unsettling for it) and spare style, and the desperation in the hard faces of the unglamorous actors. Mann, Alton, Higgins, and star O'Keefe reteamed for the moody Raw Deal the next year.

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SMV52156 T-Men DVD (1948/Dennis O'Keefe/Alfred Ryder/June Lockhart) $9.99