The Hays Code, established in 1934, killed off the pure gangster film, in which audiences were treated to the often glamorous life stories of fictional gangsters such as Tom Powers (Cagney in PUBLIC ENEMY) and "Ricco" Bandello (Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR). But the genre did continue with some changes. The problem: how to make a decent gangster picture within the bounds of Code. The answer: put Cagney (or Robinson, or who have you) on the side of the law, fighting the gangsters.
G-MEN purports to be a film about the origins of the FBI and how the Department of Justice came to be powerful enough to take on the mob. But that premise is really an excuse to make a film as exciting and violent as anything from the pre-Code days. Deftly directed by William Keighley and beautifully edited, G-MEN takes a little time to get going, but once Cagney goes on his first mission for the DOJ, it is equal to just about any gangster classic you may name. The film becomes a series of raids on gangster hideouts, each one increasingly more violent, as the G-Men pick off an entire mob one by one.
Cagney, of course, is typically terrific (one of my long standing film theories is that if Cagney is in the cast, a film is worth watching), his dancer's grace and spitfire energy undiminished by his sudden switch of sides of the law. Second lead Robert Armstrong, as Cagney's superior, is pretty awful in the first half but makes up for it in the second half where he seems to be more comfortable playing Cagney's friend rather than his tormentor. And Barton MacLane is properly menacing as the despicable heavy who will shoot his own wife in a phone booth if it means getting away from the "coppers". There is a love story, but so underplayed you can safely ignore it.
G-MEN features the kind of spinning "bank robbery" headlines that were spoofed in one of my favorite Warners cartoons, Tex Avery's Thugs with Dirty Mugs. This 1939 classic, starring a bulldog modeled after Edward G. Robinson, is a must-see for any fan of the Warner's gangster cycle. The "Take that, you rat!" gag still gets me giggling when I think about it, as does the dated but still amusing gag of the gangster pausing the action mid-cartoon to show the audiences he is quite capable of imitating Fred Allen too. - JB