The Bette Davis Project: Special Agent (1935)

Special Agent (1935)Synopsis:

A newspaperman, Bill Bradford (George Brent, Dark Victory), is really an undercover IRS agent. Bradford is assigned to bring down a vicious kingpin, Nick Carston (Ricardo Cortez, The Locket). The “special agent” quickly enlists the help of Carston’s bookkeeper, Julie Gardner (Bette Davis). This unlikely duo works together tirelessly to end Carston’s reign of terror.

Reaction & Thoughts:

This is a fairly routine gangster flick. Special Agent, written by Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel, directed by William Keighley (Juarez and 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 hot topics of the day, but this 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 censors of the era. Firstly, under the old rules, no film could have gotten away with offending a government agency like the IRS. There were also strict guidelines on how a film could depict the illicit activities of the underworld. That’s why the film feels so pandering and dishonest. Not that Special Agent had any chance of becoming a piece of art — it was designed and marketed as a B-movie — but I do think that the demands of the censors did affect the final product.

Davis takes a few steps backward here. She’s 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, absolutely nothing at all. I’m sure Davis was very angry with Warners and I don’t blame her — it doesn’t seem worthy of her time and effort. Very sad indeed.

Special Agent really belongs to Brent. He’s a bit dull, but he was never the kind of actor to set the screen on fire. After about ten minutes of watching, you realize that you need a charismatic actor like Cagney, Robinson or Bogie, to help cover up the lulls in the storyline. Cortez (brother of legendary cameraman Stanley Cortez, The Magnificent Ambersons) has the juiciest role (he played a nearly identical part in Bette Davis’s The Big Shakedown).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

In the end, there is nothing special (no pun intended) about Special Agent. It’s an unpretentious low-budget crime drama. The cast also includes Irving Pichel (Fog Over Frisco), J. Carrol Naish (Sahara), and Henry O’Neill (Jezebel). B&W, 76 minutes, Not Rated.

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