Anthony Mann's T-Men

The streaming-video channel FilmStruck is currently featuring a small but potent package of crime films and thrillers focused on undercover cops. The fact that two are directed by Anthony Mann did not affect our decision to select this grouping for our list this week. Nope. Not one bit.

This crisp 1948 thriller marked Anthony Mann’s emergence from B movie obscurity, setting him on the path that would lead to his great westerns of the 50s. Filmed in the pseudodocumentary style made popular by Louis de Rochemont, it’s the story of two Treasury Department investigators who go underground to smash a counterfeiting ring. The phony realism isn’t Mann’s style, but he subverts it with some hallucinatory noir compositions and the strong suggestion that his hero (Dennis O’Keefe) has a much more satisfying life as hood than he does as an upstanding husband. With June Lockhart, Charles McGraw, and Alfred Ryder; cinematography the legendary John Alton. 96 min. —Dave Kehr

Border Incident
Anthony Mann’s 1949 follow-up to his successful T-Men is another pseudodocumentary thriller, with immigration agents struggling to stop the flow of illegal Mexican labor into southern California. But the film’s best moments have nothing to do with realism, as Mann’s black vision lifts the subject out of the commonplace and into a strange, haunting ur-world of elemental violence. 94 min. —Dave Kehr

The Narrow Margin
An engaging, exciting noir thriller (1952) set almost entirely on a train going from Chicago to Los Angeles, with a gruff cop (Charles McGraw) guarding a saucy prosecution witness (the underrated Marie Windsor). Richard Fleischer directed this nearly perfect B picture with no fuss and lots of grit and polish from a script by Earl Fenton; the capable cinematography belongs to George E. Diskant. 70 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Reservoir Dogs
A stunning debut (1992) from writer-director Quentin Tarantino, though a far cry from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), to which it clearly owes a debt. Like The Killing, it employs an intricate flashback structure to follow the before and after of a carefully planned heist and explores some of the homoerotic allegiances, betrayals, and tensions involved; unlike The Killing, it never flashes back to the heist itself and leaves a good many knots still tied at the end. The hoods here—including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, and (in a bit) Tarantino himself—are all ex-cons hired by an older ex-con (Lawrence Tierney) who conceals their identities from one another by assigning them the names of colors. Our grasp of what’s going on is always in flux, and Tarantino’s skill with actors, dialogue, ‘Scope framing, and offbeat construction is kaleidoscopic. More questionable are the show-offy celebrations of brutality: buckets of blood, racist and homophobic invective, and an excruciating sequence of sadistic torture and (offscreen) mutilation that’s clearly meant to awe us with its sheer unpleasantness. It’s unclear whether this macho thriller does anything to improve the state of the world or our understanding of it, but it certainly sets off enough rockets to hold and shake us for every one of its 99 minutes. 99 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Infernal Affairs
A runaway hit in Hong Kong, this 2002 crime thriller reinvigorated the genre with its airtight script, taut editing, and sleek cinematography (Christopher Doyle served as visual consultant). Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) plays an undercover cop who’s spent three years infiltrating a local triad, and Andy Lau (Days of Being Wild) is his doppelganger, a triad mole rising through the ranks of the police department’s organized crime unit. Neither man knows the other’s identity, but after a while neither seems entirely sure of his own either. Their only reference point seems to be the mutual antagonism between their respective father figures, a steely police superintendent (Anthony Wong) and a scheming triad boss (Eric Tsang). Wai-Keung Lau and Alan Mak directed. In Cantonese with subtitles. 101 min. —J.R. Jones