In the 1935 film ‘G’ Men, it was supposed to be novel having James Cagney play the hero in a gangster movie, but since I grew up repeatedly watching him in Yankee Doodle Dandy, it was actually novel for me to discover, when I was a teenager, that he made his career playing ruthless gangsters. I had always thought of him as a dancer (which might have pleased Cagney – he always wished he’d made more musicals). But Cagney is primarily known for his gangster roles and he became a star after his charismatic performance in The Public Enemy in 1931. But after the Hays Code was more strictly enforced in 1934, films that were perceived as glorifying the gangster became a thing of the past. Studios had to figure out a way to make gangster movies that would be acceptable. One way was to make your movie about the men trying to catch the gangsters.
In ‘G’ Men, James “Brick” Davis (James Cagney) is a struggling lawyer who can’t seem to get anywhere because of his determination to stay honest. When his friend Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey) is murdered while attempting to make an arrest, Brick decides to become a ‘G’ Man (government man, or federal agent), in honor of Eddie, who had been trying to get him to join the FBI. The next part of the film charts his training by Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong), who starts out antagonistic, but warms up gradually through the movie.
Brick is then put on the case to try to catch the men they think killed Buchanan – who have been on a bank robbing and murder spree across the country, including killing several government men in a massacre in a train station. Brick has one advantage, though. He knew many of the men when he was growing up. There’s Brad Collins (Barton MacLane – always an intimidating villain), Gerard (Russell Hopton), and Leggett (Edward Pawley), who Brick knows always wears a gardenia for luck (which makes it easier to find him; simply stake out all the flower shops in town).
There are also TWO love interests for Brick. Jean (Ann Dvorak) works at a nightclub and clearly is crazy about Brick, though he doesn’t reciprocate her love to the same degree. When he leaves, she marries Brad Collins. And then there is McCord’s sister, Kay (Margaret Lindsay), who Brick really falls for. She initially doesn’t much care for his cocky brashness, but can’t help be attracted anyway. But though Kay gets Brick, Jean gets more to do in the film, involved as she is with the criminals and still loving Brick.
Interestingly, ‘G’ Men is a surprisingly violent film for the time. There are lots of deaths, cold-blooded murders, shootouts, thefts, gun-fights, punch fights, and yet the film never feels that heavy. Cagney seems to be having a great time, tossing wisecracks and quick dialogue around and grinning like a Cheshire cat, while still demonstrating how tough he is and the film really comes off like an exciting gangster romp. It goes at a quick tempo – only 85 minutes long – and Brick never broods for more than 30 seconds about any deaths before we are off for another round of excitement.
Immortal Ephemera notes in his post on the film that it was directed by William Keighley, who was known for his light touch, which perhaps explains the overall feel of the movie, which could easily have been a much darker story. Another interesting difference is the time spent demonstrating the methods employed by the FBI to catch the criminals, something that did not feature in earlier films (at least that I’ve seen), which were focused on the gangster, who was usually brought down by hubris, not sound crime fighting methods. Not that ‘G’ Men is a particularly realistic film, but we see them comparing fingerprints, comparing bullets that were fired, arguing for the advantages of having a federal agent who can cross state lines (unlike the police) to get the the criminal. Initially in the story, agents are not allowed to carry firearms, making them highly vulnerable to machine gun-wielding crooks.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Cagney is his usual live-wire self and there’s never a slow moment. If you are interested in how ‘G’ Men is connected to a number of real-life incidents, from the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg’s child to the murder of lawmen at a train station, Immortal Ephemera has an excellent and detailed review of ‘G’ Men here