“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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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. [↩]