Film in Focus
By Ed Garea
Special Agent (WB, 1935) – Director: William Keighley. Writers: Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel (s/p). Martin Mooney (story). Stars: Bette Davis, George Brent, Ricardo Cortez, Jack La Rue, Henry O’Neill, Robert Strange, Joseph Crehan, J. Carrol Naish, Joe Sawyer, William B. Davidson, Robert Barrat, Paul Guilfoyle, Joe King, & Irving Pichel. B&W, 76 minutes.
Neither Bette Davis nor George Brent held any special regard for Special Agent. Davis felt frustrated by what she saw as subpar efforts by director William Keighley and cameraman Sid Hickox, while Brent was a little more vocal in his criticism, telling writer Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay that the film was “a poor paltry thing, unbelievable and unconvincing.” Brent’s statements shocked Waterbury, for his reputation around the lot was as an actor who did what was required and rarely complained. He considered himself fortunate to be in show business as he regarded his own acting abilities as poor and was often afraid that people would find out just how lousy he was and fire him.
True, Brent was a wooden actor, but his affable personality endeared him to moviegoers. Moreover, Davis liked him. Special Agent was the fifth film they made together, and they would go on to make six more, including the classics Jezebel and Dark Victory. But though she liked working with him, she still noted that his onscreen energy never came close to matching his off-screen vigor. Luckily for Brent, Waterbury never published his criticism because she showed it to the Warner Bros. publicity department and they talked her out of it.
However, Special Agent was popular with the public and critics. The New York Times lauded it as a “crisp, fast moving and thoroughly entertaining melodrama,” noting that Warner Bros. “have set about the job of glorifying the special agents of the Internal Revenue Bureau with commendable thoroughness and a neat sense of gun play.”
The script, from a story by real-life newspaperman (and the film’s co-producer) Martin Mooney, is a reworking of the Al Capone tax evasion trail. Ricardo Cortez, Warners’ stock villain of the time, is gangster Alexander Carston. Carston’s pretty much a Teflon Don, having just been acquitted by a jury on charges of bribery. As we saw at the beginning of the movie, the IRS Chief (Barrat) has charged his agents with going after those gangsters whom the local authorities have been unable to put away.
Carston is living pretty high on the hog. He’s a favorite of society people and a continuing story for reporters, one of whom is Bill Bradford (Brent). Carston has his bookkeeper Julie Gardner (Davis) audit the accounts of Alec “Waxy” Armitage (Strange), the hood who runs Carston’s gambling business. Julie reports that Waxy has come up $30,000 short. Waxy tries to talk his way out of trouble with his boss, offering to make good on the losses, but Carston’s not impressed. Waxy, knowing he’s good as dead, goes to fellow hood Jake Andrews (La Rue) for advice. Jake’s advice is that Waxy should go to the DA and turn state’s evidence. Waxy goes to see the DA. Meanwhile, Jake (being ambitious and wanting to step into Waxy’s shoes) tips Carston as to Waxy’s move. Carston assigns hit man Joe Durell (Naish) to take Waxy out. Unfortunately, Joe not only kills Waxy, but also the four policemen guarding him. Carston calls Joe into his office and tells him he’s botched the job and to lay low, but Durrell answers with a lot of lip. After he leaves, Carston tells his second-in-command Ned Rich (Sawyer) to take Durrell fishing and use him for bait.
Bill Bradford reports the story. Carston believes Bill is merely doing his job, which is why he doesn’t object to Bill’s romance with Julie. But what Carston doesn’t know is that the IRS has deputized Bill as a special agent.
Next to go is Andrews. The District Attorney (O’Neill) tells Andrews they have the goods on him and he can save his skin by trading information on Carston. Andrews spills what he knows, but a document he has given the D.A. is stolen by the D.A.’s file clerk Williams (Guilfoyle) who sells it to Carston for $10,000. Although Carston is tried for his role in the shootings, the main witness against him, Andrews, is killed and the vital document is “lost.”
In the meantime, things are getting sticky. Carston warns Julie about seeing Bill. Bill tells Julie he wants to marry her, but she’s afraid to leave Carston as only she knows his bookkeeping code.
After the jury acquits Carston, Bill reveals his true identity to the D.A. and Julie. Bill and the D.A. come up with a plan to photocopy Carston’s books, with the help of Julie, who offers to hide them in her room after Bill, in his role as the friendly reporter, tips Carston about the upcoming raid. Julie is arrested as a material witness. She helps the D.A. and Bill decode the books as Carston is arrested for tax evasion. Julie also exposes Williams to the D.A. as one of Carston’s informants. Before Julie can testify, however, Carston has her kidnapped while on her way to court.
Bill comes up with a plan to find Julie. He and the D.A. pressure Williams into tipping Carston that Bill is actually an IRS agent in disguise. When Bill visits Carston, the gangster has Rich take Bill to the hideout where Julie is also stashed. Bill is tied up next to Julie, but the police arrive and rescue them. Back in court, Julie is testifying about the code when Bill sees Carston pull a pistol from his valise. Bill shoots it out of his hand in the nick of time. Carston is convicted and sent to Alcatraz, and the film ends with Bill announcing he’s taking some time off to marry Julie.
Despite the fact that it a breezy, fast-moving 76 minutes, in the end it’s just another programmer ground out by the studio, no less and certainly no more. About the only thing worth remembering about Special Agent is that for Bette Davis, it was the film that she did immediately prior to Dangerous, which brought her the Oscar. Other than that, it was the sort of potboiler that the studio kept casting her in despite the acclaim she won for quality films such as Of Human Bondage. At least she got George Brent, one of her favorite leading men, as her co-star.
With the enforcement of the Code, Warner Bros. got an attack of establishment fever, making films glorifying the government lawmen sent to battle criminals that have eluded local law enforcement efforts. Cagney’s ‘G’ Men was released earlier that year (May), and Special Agent could have been as exciting if the studio had decided to put a little effort into it. But Warner Bros. didn’t value Davis in the same way they valued Cagney and the film suffers as a result.
Special Agent is obviously based on Al Capone, who was taken down by the IRS for income tax evasion. But the similarity stops there, as the studio opted for a generic gangster picture where only the titles of the characters change. The idea of Brent’s character being an undercover agent posing as a newspaper reporter has great possibilities, but the writers ruined it by having Brent established as a reporter who was deputized by the IRS as a special agent.
In reality, it doesn’t work that way, as there is no way a layman could just be deputized like that, with no training. Special agents did work in undercover roles; the Capone case was a prime example of IRS men going undercover to gather the necessary evidence to nail Big Al. If Brent’s character had been established as a special agent who worked undercover as a newspaper reporter, it still would be a bit far-fetched but would have at least made sense. Here, Brent is simply a reporter deputized as a cop, the result of lazy scriptwriting. And would a gangster on the level of an Al Capone employ a single young woman as the keeper of his books? That goes against every historical example and seems intended only as a way to give Bette Davis’ character something to do.
Davis and Brent give their usual professional performances and work off each other nicely. They should, considering their working history together. The only flaw in their performance is when Brent convinces Bette to turn on Cortez; it just doesn’t come off as convincing, considering that Davis’ character is scared to death of her employer. Speaking of, the best performance in the film belongs to Ricardo Cortez, who breathes life into what should be just another supporting role. I liked Cortez’s bit of constantly wearing gloves. It gives a little quirkiness to his character and sets us up for the trial scene, when he takes the gloves off just before reaching into his valise to a gun. William B. Davidson, one of the great unsung supporting players, is excellent as Cortez’s sleazy mouthpiece. Jack LaRue, as Andrews, the kind of role Humphrey Bogart would soon fill, uses his sleepy-eyed menace to good effect, though his screen time is all too brief.
In the final analysis, Special Agent is a film that should please Bette Davis fans, with the best thing being said about it was that it did neither Davis nor Brent any great harm. For Davis, although it did not seem like it at the time, great things were still in store for her in the future.
Made just after the Hays Office began to strictly enforce the Production Code, the film suffered from uneven continuity resulting from the deletion of lines and parts of scenes deemed inappropriate. According to the TCM essay on the film by Jeremy Arnold, the toughest scene to fix was one involving a line of dialogue that was seen as especially offensive. As the scene couldn’t be cut because it contained important plot information and couldn’t be redone because of budgetary limitations, the decision was made simply to erase the line altogether, with the result that Cortez’s lips are moving, but nothing’s coming out.
In 1940, the studio remade the film in its B-unit as Gambling on the High Seas, with Wayne Morris in Brent’s role, Jane Wyman in Davis’ role, and Gilbert Roland as the crime boss. The gimmick to the film is that crime boss Roland is running a floating casino beyond the territorial limit. Morris remains a reporter; there is no connection to the IRS. After Roland is indicted, look for George Reeves in a quick scene as a reporter phoning in the story to his paper.
Reporter Bill Bradford (Brent) to Julie Gardner (Davis) over lunch: “I like you. You don’t ask asinine questions at a ball game, you don’t get lipstick on a guy’s collar, and you carry your own cigarettes.”