The FBI has been in the news a lot this week. It is as though they've come out of a 30-year thaw and actually begun moving again. It's difficult to imagine that during the middle 20th Century, the FBI was actually an iconic and highly-respected American institution. Their legendary leader, J. Edgar Hoover, was not only effective at fighting threats to public security, but---unlike today's Federal police agencies---actively sought public interaction with the FBI in fulfillment of their duties.
The FBI and the exploits of Federal agents were very popular in the entertainment media in those days. Our weekend's viewing recommendation is the film that started it all. From 1935, G-Men was produced with technical assistance from the FBI and starred James Cagney, Robert Armstrong, and Margaret Lindsay.
G-Men was an innovative film in that Hollywood crime dramas of the day typically focused on the rise and fall of criminal elements rather than the dramatic actions of police in fighting crime. The more typical police dramas were the standard detective-mystery formats. Action films where the police force were the protagonists were uncommon. Cagney's performance as the daring and tough FBI recruit Brick Davis changed all of that for media history.
The plot of the story is that Brick Davis---from a tough, gang-ridden borough of New York, decides at an early age to go straight and become a crusading lawyer. The Great Depression put a lot of young lawyers out of business; but Davis' ex-law partner sees an opportunity in the FBI. Davis is at first reluctant, but after his friend is gunned down by mobsters, he decides to join the FBI and fight for justice there. Field Director Jeff McCord (played by Robert Armstrong) takes the brash young Davis under his wing for training. Davis also finds himself attracted to the lovely Kay (played by Margaret Lindsay) who turns out to be McCord's daughter. Davis goes on to help track down the mobsters who killed his friend.
There is a lot of action in this film, as we'd expect from 1930's Cagney movie. At least two of the shootouts are known to have been based on actual events: the 1933 'Kansas City Massacre' and a 1934 raid against John Dillinger and 'Baby Face' Nelson.
The FBI made a reputation under Hoover for fighting organized crime; breaking up sex and drug trafficking rings; fighting religious cults; and investigating anti-American activities. For these reasons, the postmodern Hollywood Left---which endorses all of these behaviors---despises the FBI under the Hoover years and never portrays it in anything other than a negative light. Many of these effete critics dismiss G-Men as an 'FBI propaganda film' which, of course, is projection from Hollywood propagandists themselves. And a robust, masculine hero who's nicknamed 'Brick' stings the emasculated Hollywood culture to the quick.
Fans of action police dramas will no doubt enjoy G-Men. It was set during a period where the FBI was often hamstrung by limited powers, and agents having to act on their own initiative; and frequently over the objections of the Brass were common in 1935 as now. All of the films of this genre down to 1970s series like Dirty Harry derived from G-Men. One can't help but notice the character similarities between Brick Davis and Harry Callahan.
G-Men is most widely available on DVD. It is occasionally available on free sites, but is not as of this writing.