Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Special Agent' (1935)

At this point, I've seen nearly all of these quickie programmers that Bette Davis churned out in the 1930s, and what's left is mostly the dregs. Special Agent, one of 13 films Davis co-starred in with George Brent (just when I think I've seen the last of him, he shows up in another Davis movie), is definitely among those dregs, with very little to recommend it other than some historical curiosity and a solid (but not outstanding) performance from Davis. Brent is the real star here, playing a U.S. Treasury Department agent who works undercover as a newspaper reporter as he attempts to ensnare a wily crime boss played by an amusingly sleazy Ricardo Cortez.

Davis plays the boss' secretary and bookkeeper, who is also sweet on Brent's Bill Bradford, without knowing his true identity. Davis' Julie Gardner is a good-hearted woman, neither the amoral femme fatale nor the morally righteous crusader Davis played in other crime movies. She's in over her head and wants to get away from her boss, but she doesn't really have any mission other than living a safe and happy life (and eventually marrying Bill, of course). So Davis plays her with a mix of sweetness and determination, and she's easily the most likable character in the movie. But like all the other characters, she's basically one-dimensional, and the movie is more interested in plodding procedural details than in telling an interesting story or developing rounded characters.

It opens with a literal lecture to Bill and his colleagues from a superior officer whom we never see again, describing the vital importance of the Treasury Department in rooting out organized crime and other vices in the United States. And the rest of the movie pays lots of attention to minutiae like making photostats and squad cars radioing in as they follow some criminals to their hideout. There are a few nice touches to Bill and Julie's relationship, like her constant hunger (for food), and Cortez plays up his character's ruthlessness with enthusiasm. But those are small grace notes in an otherwise dreary, forgettable morality play.

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