“Putting aside whatever doubts the FBI had about its image in these films, the two films represent one of the many fascinating permutations of the gangster film in the studio era, with the heroic FBI agent acting in a manner befitting an upstanding American, yet able to shift gears and punch out a gangster.”
The gangster film is a distinctly American genre — in its original form, a potent distillation of the Prohibition’s effects on urban America, with gritty visuals and well-articulated conventions. But it has also been a genre flexible enough to adapt to changing times. The tropes of the gangster film proved useful to Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros., as the studios adapted to censorship pressures. Having essentially founded the genre in the early 1930s with such classics as Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy (1931), Warner Bros. discovered the genre was a lucrative draw, perhaps due in part to the genre’s brutal expression of self-determination. The genre at once challenged democratic, lawful paths to success and, in some ways, affirmed those democratic ideals. (The classic gangster motto: “You gotta be somebody.”)
The Hollywood Production Code, applied under the auspices of the Hays Office and then Joseph Breen, forced the gangster genre to constrain some of its more violent and dangerously appealing anti-heroes. Warner Bros. found a way to deal with the increasing constraints and still produce a marketable and exciting film: It turned the gangster into an FBI agent, as seen in two key films from different eras, G-Men (1935) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). (The latter film, rarely screened on television, was shown in early 2010 as part of a series of “Red”-themed Hollywood films on Turner Classic Movies.) Both films are notable for how they apply the gangster tropes within the context of real-life stories about the FBI and its agents. The films stimulate the audience by repeatedly injecting action between the lawmen heroes and the gangsters they pursue. At the same time, they serve up a moral lesson as well for audiences in these time periods: The FBI is an important force in the ongoing fight against crime and anti-democratic elements in America.1
Ironically, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership, distanced itself from both films for reasons that relate to the political and social pressures of the eras in which they were produced. According to Richard Gid Powers’ book G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture, the FBI apparently objected to the film G-Men‘s portrayal of the FBI agent as someone likely to defeat the gangsters in a shootout, even as Hoover aimed to publicize the FBI’s forensic skills and teamwork. The FBI chose to disassociate itself from G-Men, at a time when the FBI otherwise sought positive publicity in its efforts to reduce crime in Depression-era America. In the case of I Was a Communist for the FBI, Hoover directed FBI offices to give no assistance to the filmmakers, according to film historian Daniel Leab, perhaps because the film was based on a real FBI agent (Matt Cvetic) who was a well-known alcoholic and, when testifying before the HUAC investigators, liable to embellish tales of his work in a Communist cell. Putting aside whatever doubts the FBI had about its image in these films, the two films represent one of the many fascinating permutations of the gangster film in the studio era, with the heroic FBI agent acting in a manner befitting an upstanding American, yet able to shift gears and punch out a gangster.
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In the early 1930s, as gangster films became progressively more brutal and violent (and sexual) — peaking with the original 1932 version of Scarface (based on the notorious Al Capone) — Hollywood began to feel increasing pressure from religious censorship groups and state-run censorship boards to rein in the gangster genre. Despite the enormous popularity of the genre — Little Caesar and The Public Enemy both ran for a total of 42 weeks in Los Angeles and New York City — studio bosses like Harry and Jack Warner feared that their films would be banned in some regions of the country or subject to outside censorship (Roddick 274). So they agreed to enforce the Hollywood Production Code with increasing severity. In the preamble of the Code, little doubt remained that the gangster’s possible glamorization was in trouble: “The intent of the Code is . . . to insure above all that crime will be shown to be wrong and that the criminal life will be loathed and that the law will at all times prevail.” (underlines in original Code)
While the police eventually prevailed in Little Caesar and Scarface, the new leader of the Hays Office, Joseph Breen, set out to ensure that there would be no mistaking criminals for heroes in the future by building up the stature of lawmen in the movies. The government began to teach the public that the law would prevail in real life as well, setting up the ultimate professional lawman, the FBI agent, as the country’s savior from the gangsters. Beginning in 1933, the FBI made a concerted effort to cooperate with journalists who wrote articles promoting the successes of the FBI, particularly Washington Star reporter Rex Collier and freelance writer Courtney Cooper. In 1934 the FBI hired its first public relations man, Henry Suydam, to increase the publicity effort begun by Attorney General Homer Cummings (Powers 97-8). Breen’s censorship office also briefly allowed a short-lived exemption from some of the codes against gangster films, so that Hollywood could depict the government’s fight against crime (Powers 71-3).
The interests of Hollywood and the FBI met early in 1935 with the production of G-Men. The film has James Cagney, the former Public Enemy himself, reversing his image, joining the FBI and shooting it out with the gangsters he grew up with. At first glance, the idea of James Cagney on the side of the FBI appeared to be a publicity dream for the FBI. But, as Richard Gid Powers recounts in his book about the rise of Hoover’s FBI, the FBI, in fact, announced that it had nothing to do with the development of the film. Their statement read: “This Bureau did not cooperate in the production of G-Men, or in any way endorse this motion picture” (53).
Powers’ explanation for the FBI’s dismissal of what would prove to be a phenomenal public relations success for them (G-Men played for 50 weeks combined in LA and New York) is, however, not entirely convincing (Roddick 274). Powers suggests the FBI’s rejection of any connection to the film was a political maneuver by Attorney General Cummings, who saw the film as a dismissal of his role in the fight against crime and a myth-making promotion of his underling, Hoover. In essence, according to Powers, a fit of jealousy kept the FBI from trumpeting the film, at least initially (when Warners re-released the film in 1949, the studio added a prologue of an FBI instructor showing it to a class of trainees) (54-5).
While this theory is plausible, it doesn’t seem wholly persuasive. For one thing, the FBI sent out disclaimers even before the film was released (52-3). If the FBI were as out of the loop in the making of the film as the evidence seems to indicate, then how would Cummings be aware before the film was released that it was going to give credit for the restored law and order to Hoover rather than to himself? (Powers himself notes that Cummings probably never saw the script. (52)) Second, such reasoning presupposes a tug-of-war for recognition between Cummings and Hoover, yet Powers doesn’t present any signs of struggle prior to this film. After 1935, of course, Hoover eclipsed Cummings in the popular culture, but that only proves that Cummings should have been worried about Hoover’s publicity, not that he actually was.
It’s more likely that Cummings and Hoover rightly believed Warner Bros. was going to type the FBI agent as a detective more likely to capture a criminal in a gun battle than through forensics, depicting the agent as a rugged individual, rather than as the efficient, professional, company clone that Cummings and Hoover wanted to project as an image. Much of Powers’ writing on the conflict between the FBI’s myth of the G-Man and Hollywood’s myth supports the initial distancing of the two communities in this early stage of their joint publicity efforts.
G-Men encapsulates many of the FBI’s most famous cases of the early 1930s, particularly the hunt for John Dillinger, and acts as an editorial for arming agents with the firepower to compete with the criminals. Despite all of the advertisements for the FBI contained in the film, one can see why Cummings might have objected to it: For all of the skill and dedication of the other agents, it is almost always Brick Davis’ (Cagney) individual actions that save the day. Davis joins the FBI not for its reputation, but because the gangsters kill his FBI buddy, and he wants revenge. In the film, the G-Men have all of the forensics in the world, but it is Davis’ knowledge of the gangsters’ habits that allows them to figure out who killed his friend. When the G-Men interrogate a chorus girl, a former girlfriend of Davis’, about the whereabouts of the gangsters, their bully tactics prove useless; only his sympathetic talk with her elicits the information. And at the end of G-Men, Davis leaps out of his hospital bed, where he is recuperating after being shot by the gang leader Collins, and dashes to the side of Collins’ dying wife (the former chorus girl), where he once again gets the crucial information on Collins’ hideout. Without Davis, it appears, the FBI would have little chance of success against the gangsters.
Several characters and scenes in the film are drawn from the headlines of the war on crime. Three members of the gang — Leggett, Gerard, and Collins — are explicitly modeled after “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Babyface” Nelson, and Dillinger, respectively. One of the shootouts is a re-creation of the 1933 Kansas City Massacre, where it is believed “Pretty Boy” Floyd along with two others gunned down one of the gang’s members who had been arrested and four FBI agents. The famed 1934 shootout between the FBI and Dillinger’s gang at a roadhouse in Little Bohemia, Wisconsin, is a major scene in the film, with the truth that it was a fiasco for the FBI — Dillinger escaped and one innocent bystander was killed by an agent — whitewashed to some degree. G-Men also alludes to Dillinger’s violent death outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago in the final confrontation, where Davis and the other agents gun down Collins in the street with machine guns.
Even though the gangsters are primarily one-dimensional heavies in G-Men, Warners is still attracted to the fast-and-rough style of the criminal world. Cagney, as Davis, is as quick-witted, resilient, and nimble as ever, though even he is swamped at times by the film’s tendency to fall back on melodramatic clichés, such as the FBI instructor who has a grudge against Davis and Davis’ romance with the instructor’s sister. The former leader of the gang, Mac, who financed Davis’ education, is presented as surprisingly admirable given the censorship pressures of the time. Davis’ father figure is a highly respectable gangster who wants to get out of the business because he detests the new crowd of ruffians moving in. While the lesson that crime doesn’t pay is stronger than ever by this point in the genre’s history, G-Men clearly still draws on the public’s fascination with Prohibition-era gangsters rather than any adoration of the FBI. And given the same studio methods, the same lead actors, a common setting, and the proven box office potential of the gangster genre, it is no surprise that G-Men feels like a reprise of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy.
In fact, British censors complained that the film (and several others about government agents produced during 1935-36, including Warner Bros.’ Bullets or Ballots, with Little Caesar‘s Edward G. Robinson performing a similar transformation from gangster to detective) merely repackaged the same violence as before. This led Breen to end the exemptions for the genre, even for films about the FBI or other agents of the law (Powers 72-3).
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By the late 1940s and early ’50s, nearly a generation later and in an anxiety-ridden postwar political landscape, Hollywood faced a much different form of censorship than during the earlier heyday of the gangsters. Now the issue was not whether the films glorified gangsters as violent men who lived by their own code of morals. Rather, the issue was if the characters were sufficiently anticommunist. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) had replaced Breen and his censors as the overriding force in Hollywood. Launching investigations into Hollywood directors, writers, producers, and actors in 1947 and 1951, HUAC forced Hollywood studios to distance themselves from any films and filmmakers the least bit tainted with “Red” ideas, either in the past or at present. The films that they did make either had to be overtly anticommunist or sufficiently apolitical (at least on the surface) as to avoid controversy. Filmmakers who dared to question the current McCarthyist politics were soon blacklisted.
Several manifestly anticommunist films emerged in this era that mark the extent to which Hollywood bolstered its political credentials in the face of HUAC’s pressure. Films like I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Walk East on Beacon (1952), and My Son John (1952) reflect an image of a country obsessed with the dangers posed by Communist infiltrators and intent on driving out any form of subversion. These subversives seemed to include gangsters, as evidenced by I Was a Communist for the FBI, which showed the FBI ridding the country of Communist cells in blue-collar cities like Pittsburgh. This particular anticommunist film uses the anti-Red fervor of the times to essentially repackage familiar gangster milieus and violence. Yet the FBI, contrary to its whole-hearted participation in the production of Walk East on Beacon, disapproved of the film’s representation of FBI agents and avoided tying itself to a potentially promising opportunity for pro-FBI propaganda.
The film’s origins lie in a series of “as told to” articles published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1950 about a former FBI agent, Matt Cvetic, who had joined a Pittsburgh cell of Communists and then testified about the group’s activities before another HUAC investigation. Warner Bros. purchased the film rights, seeing an opportunity to make some money off Cvetic’s supposed heroics while promoting the studio’s anticommunist stance. The studio’s press releases compared the upcoming film to its 1939 Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which had positioned the studio in a politically valuable spotlight as World War II loomed. As production began on I Was a Communist for the FBI in 1951, studio head Jack Warner made statements about stopping “the march of those who are trying to undermine the foundations of our democratic structure” (Leab 76-7).
Yet, no surprise, the film itself seems uninterested in depicting the Communists in any kind of truthful manner. Instead, they come across as gangster-like, money-driven thugs, rather than ideologues intent on undermining democracy. And the film’s portrayal of Cvetic sometimes suggests he is exhausted by his cover of being a Communist. The heroics of his efforts are undercut by his personal troubles as his family rejects him due to his apparently procommunist beliefs and actions. Perhaps this explains the FBI’s reluctance to ally itself with the film: In addition to Hoover’s disapproval of the film’s gangster tropes, the FBI may have felt the film depicted agents as worn out from their work and disassociated from their families — hardly the upstanding, well-adjusted family men of FBI myth. Certainly, Cvetic’s real-life struggles with alcohol and his tendency to gild his stories when testifying became a PR problem the FBI wanted to avoid.
In his book I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic, Daniel Leab notes that as Crane Wilbur and then Borden Chase developed various versions of the script, they increasingly drifted from the somewhat mundane reality of Cvetic’s undercover experiences and added familiar gangster material to enliven the story. Leab writes that in an early draft, Wilbur added some “gangster film elements such as two CP-ordered murders disguised as suicides.” Chase then wrote his own versions of the script, with more “B” gangster film conventions, according to Leab. The final shooting script was an amalgam of Wilbur’s and Chase’s scripts (78-81).
These gangster conventions are evident throughout I Was a Communist for the FBI, as the Communist cell leaders appear to be more interested in murdering enemies and developing schemes to bilk money from working-class Americans. The political causes seem to be just a veneer for a fairly conventional “FBI chasing gangsters” plot, but the film’s overtly anticommunist message could not have hurt Warner Bros.’ political image in a time of heavy scrutiny from HUAC. With a finale that features a fictionalization of Cvetic’s real-life testimony at HUAC hearings, the film certainly appears to protect WB from any issues with the Production Code and any possible attacks on the political front.
The Communist Party’s leaders look and act as if they have been watching Scarface. The Pittsburgh party chief, Blandon, is usually attired in a natty double-breasted suit that does little to disguise the Party’s hunger for power and its willingness to use violence. Early in the film, the American Communist Party leader, Gerhardt Eisler, visits the Pittsburgh office for a celebration after getting out of jail on bail. Eisler tells Cvetic that Cvetic has been promoted to chief party organizer for Pittsburgh, to recruit new members from the steel plants. Eisler’s plans sound like a plan for a gang war: “To bring about the victory of Communism in America, we must incite riots, discontent, open warfare among them.” When Cvetic looks uneasy at the buffet table of caviar and champagne, another Communist leader says, “Get used to it, Cvetic. This is how we’re all going to live when we take the country over.” While the scope of the Communists’ ambition may be larger, there’s little difference between the lifestyles of the Communist leaders and earlier gangsters like Little Caesar and Scarface who celebrated their achievements at lavish parties.
Several of the film’s political scenes convey the Communists’ cartoonish disregard for the workers, whom they view as easy marks for their racketeering and union manipulation. After one rally before a crowd of African American workers, Blandon calls them “niggers” who are just a means to raise money for the Party. He then refers to how the Party made close to $2 million from blacks while supposedly fighting the notorious racism evident in the Scottsboro case. Later, when the Communists stage a strike at one of the steel plants, Communist thugs beat up some of the union leaders who try to defuse the strike. The thugs use lead pipes wrapped in Jewish newspapers, to take advantage of Americans’ supposed anti-Semitism. The violent brawl in the scene wouldn’t be out of place at a plant in one of Raoul Walsh’s gangster films, or perhaps in another gang-related classic, On the Waterfront, in which the mob controls the union. Blandon and some of the other Communist leaders watch with delight as the brawl leads to media and police attention. At the same time, director Gordon Douglas also includes a sense of workers’ real anticommunism, such as in the film’s final scenes as the Communist leaders are put on trial. Some of the footage of anticommunist riots outside the trial appears possibly drawn from real riots, mixed in with some staged docudrama-style shots of unruly crowds.
Like with Brick Davis in G-Men, the danger to Cvetic becomes the center of the film’s second half, as the Communist leaders grow increasingly suspicious of his activities. As in so many gangster films, the Party members question each other’s loyalty. For instance, Blandon has him tailed when Cvetic takes a separate cab home. Eisler asks Blandon, “Don’t you trust your new party organizer?” “Do we trust anybody?” replies Blandon. “Mmm, not too much,” murmurs Eisler. Of course, in I Was a Communist for the FBI, the party leaders are right to suspect Cvetic of double-crossing them; there’s little sense of the ambivalence Davis appeared to feel toward some of the gangsters in G-Men. It’s clear from early on that Cvetic is wholly an FBI plant, not someone tempted by the Party’s ideology or greed. Even his love interest, Eve, a teacher who is a member of the Communist Party, turns out to have ulterior motives when she tries to seduce him one night. The morally upstanding Cvetic resists her advances, and we soon learn that Blandon had assigned her to check on Cvetic’s activities.
But Eve is only briefly a femme fatale; she eventually turns against the Communists’ use of violence and becomes a target, as does Cvetic. After she breaks down at the sight of the union brawl, Eve decries the Party members’ actions. She says that while she first believed the Communist movement was intellectual, a movement toward true freedom, “it’s only out to gain complete control of every human mind and body in the world. Communism is a mockery of freedom.” This speech sets up the film’s most prolonged action, a tense sequence in which Cvetic helps Eve escape from the Communist thugs who have come to kill her at her apartment. The sequence, which has little to do with the Communist plot, uses many gangster tropes to add intensity; it certainly evokes any number of similar scenes in which a rival gang tries to rub out another gang (or a disloyal member). The Communist thugs kill an FBI agent who had tried to arrest them. After the couple narrowly escape the thugs, running down a back hallway to a waiting car in an alley, the sequence climaxes with a shootout on a train. An inspired “B-film” shot captures one thug screaming as a train barrels into him while he lies on the tracks.
I Was a Communist for the FBI even acknowledges the real-life censorship forces of the era near the end of the film, as Cvetic begins to testify against the Party. When the Communist leaders discuss how to react to the media coverage of the thugs’ deaths, they mention how they can derail the HUAC investigation by attacking the committee in the media and staging another rally to create a fake threat of a fascist uprising — all to raise more money. Here the film briefly alludes to the real political environment of the era but soon returns to gangster conventions. Before Cvetic reveals his status as an FBI agent, Blandon threatens him, much like a gang boss, telling him that the Communists kill traitors (he mentions Trotsky, among others). The other Communists start beating up Cvetic, but are stopped when the police arrest him for the earlier murder of the agent, to protect him from further suspicion among the Communists.
Director Douglas completes the gangster conventions amid the film’s final scenes of Cvetic testifying about his undercover work and the Communist Party’s “front” for a “vast spy system” that intends “to deliver the people of the United States into the hands of Russia as a slave colony.” Cvetic soon reunites with his family and then encounters Blandon just as Blandon is about to testify. Fulfilling the Production Code’s determination to see crime punished, Cvetic slugs Blandon, for which one of the investigating Congressmen thanks him. For a studio that made millions off tough gangsters like those portrayed by Cagney in the ’30s, this final touch makes it clear how the film relies on the audience’s desire for the heroic gangster-like figure to knock down his chief rival, whatever the political trappings of the film.
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While this punch to the pseudo-gangster’s face was intended to satisfy the audience and those who oversaw the Production Code, it still left an image of a potentially violent FBI agent that did not sit well with Hoover and those in charge of that image. The FBI would continue to control and carefully manufacture that image in film, culminating in 1959’s The FBI Story, with James Stewart as a model FBI agent. That film, produced by Warner Bros. with the FBI’s full involvement (including a cameo by Hoover), allowed the FBI to tell an even more highly fictionalized and less gritty version of its founding and growth as America’s most famous crime-fighting force. In fact, the film seems as interested in the agent’s home life as it does in his involvement in various FBI operations. And the FBI agent’s work is shown as largely forensic in nature, instead of the anticipated shootouts with gangsters, who only briefly appear in the film. By the end of the 1950s, government pressure on Hollywood to fight the communists had lessened; the era of the Blacklist was near its end and the threat of nuclear war became the prime concern in many American films. The smaller-scale threat of gangster-like elements paled in comparison to this apocalyptic imagery. And so G-Men and I Was a Communist for the FBI became artifacts of their eras, when the FBI saw gangsters as the primary danger. The gangster film would lie in wait, once again, for the Production Code to die and another generation’s dissonant view of the American Dream to erupt, as it did in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. And as gangsters’ moral codes grew more complex and fascinating, the genre no longer needed the FBI agent — the audience was allowed to root for the gangster without the imposition of a more unambiguous role model.
Leab, Daniel. I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000.
Powers, Richard Gid. G-Men: Hoover’s FBI in American Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1983.
Roddick, Nick. A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s. London: British Film Institute, 1983.
- Of course, there are also more recent and more ambiguous examples of undercover FBI agent stories set in the gangsters’ world: witness Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997), also based on a true story. [↩]