Special Agent (1935)

Special Agent (1935)


Bill Bradford (George Brent, The Spiral Staircase) is an undercover IRS agent trying to bring down a vicious kingpin (Ricardo Cortez, The Locket). The “special agent” enlists the help of the mafioso’s feisty bookkeeper (Bette Davis) and this unlikely duo work together to end the gangster’s reign of terror.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Suppose they put me in jail. I’ve never been in jail before.”

This is a fairly routine gangster flick. Special Agent, written by Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel, directed by William Keighley (The Man Who Came to Dinner), was clearly inspired by Al Capone’s sensational 1931 trial for tax evasion. The folks at Warner Bros. were experts in exploiting the hot topics of the day, but the film is not the best example of the studio’s ability to turn real-life drama into fun escapism.

Some of the problems I had with the film were caused by the rigid censorship of the era. First, under the old rules, no film could have gotten away with offending a government agency like the IRS (Internal Revenue Service). The censors demanded movies to treat most government institutions with the utmost respect. Unfortunately, the main character, a tenacious IRS agent, walks around with halo over his head.

More important, there were strict guidelines on how a film could depict the illicit activities of the underworld. That’s why the film feels so dishonest. Not that Special Agent had any chance of ever becoming a piece of high art — it’s a B-movie — but I do think that the demands of the censors did affect the final product.

Bette Davis takes a few steps backwards here. She is suddenly back to the demure blondes of the past. Davis spends most of the movie reacting rather than acting. Eliminate her character and the movie loses nothing. I’m sure Davis was very angry with Warner Bros. and I don’t blame her — it doesn’t seem worthy of her time and effort.

George Brent is the real star of the movie. He’s a bit dull, but then he was never the kind of actor to set the screen on fire. The film needed an actor like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart to help cover up the lulls in the storyline. Anyway, the charismatic Ricardo Cortez has the juiciest role. He played a nearly identical part in Bette’s The Big Shakedown. Anyhow, Cortez is always good in tough-guy roles.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In the end, there is nothing special (no pun intended) about Special Agent. It’s an ordinary low-budget crime drama. The cast also includes J. Carrol Naish (A Medal for Benny),  Henry O’Neill (The Life of Emile Zola) and Irving Pichel (Dracula’s Daughter) as the District Attorney. B&W, 76 minutes, Not Rated.

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