Notorious gangster Vic Murkland (Roy Barcroft) escapes from prison and hides out at Benson’s Sanitarium, where his accomplice Doc Benson (Stanley Price) uses plastic surgery to transform him into a perfect double of Police Commissioner Angus Cameron (also Roy Barcroft); Murkland then manages to have Cameron kidnapped and imprisoned in the sanitarium, taking his place as Commissioner. Soon the Murkland mob has resumed its racketeering activities, targeting industrialist R. J. Cook (Edmund Cobb) with protection demands; G-man Ted O’Hara (Clayton Moore) is assigned to run Murkland down– but takes a long time to realize that his trusted ally the commissioner is also his elusive quarry.
G-Men Never Forget was the first post-war Republic serial to place really heavy reliance on stock footage; almost all its cliffhangers are borrowed from earlier serials, with the script carefully tailored to lead up to the cribbed sequences. However, despite the familiarity of the chapter-ending action, G-Men is never tedious; in fact, it’s both interesting and entertaining, thanks to an excellent cast, strong camera work, good direction, and a script that adds some distinctive flourishes to the standard Republic formula.
Writers Franklin Adreon, Basil Dickey, Sol Shor, and Jesse Duffy wisely avoid the large-scale espionage plots or extraterrestrial invasions that jarred so embarrassingly with Republic’s reduced post-war budgets in many of the studio’s other later chapterplays; the heavies in G-Men are fairly realistic gangsters preoccupied with protection rackets, payroll robberies, and other down-to-earth schemes. Although most of those schemes–like the plots of more grandiose late-Republic villains–are repeatedly thwarted by the good guys, G-Men’s heavies come off as not only more believable but also more menacing than most of their contemporaries, murdering more than one likable supporting character as part of their ongoing attempt to cover up Murkland’s masquerade as the Commissioner.
The aforesaid masquerade and the Commissioner’s imprisonment by the heavies make G-Men much more involving than most of Republic’s later cops-and-robbers chapterplays; it lends suspense to the narrative and provides a connecting thread between the otherwise unrelated capers that form the bulk of the narrative. The Commissioner’s attempts to escape, and Murkland’s attempts to preserve his pose, periodically interrupt the heroes and heavies’ repetitive clashes over robberies and racketeering, while the final three episodes are entirely given over to the gradual exposure of Murkland–providing a satisfying and dramatic build-up to the exciting climactic chapter. The writers also do a very good job of reminding us of Murkland’s matchstick-chewing habit at periodic intervals–a habit that plays a key part in the serial’s eventual denouement.
The most distinctive aspect of G-Men’s script, however, is its frequent echoing of the tough black-and-white crime films popular in the post-war era–features such as The Narrow Margin, The Racket, or Armored Car Robbery. G-Men is not as hard-boiled in tone as any of these films, of course; however, many of its scenes–like the vicious beating of Cameron and a double-crossing henchman, or the murder scene in Chapter Ten (with the panicked victim plastering himself against a closet wall as his killer calmly turns on a radio to muffle the fatal shot)–do show a decidedly harsher edge than one would expect from a serial. The hero’s pose as a hood and the heroine’s complimentary pose as his slinky moll are also a bit edgy by serial standards, as is the villains’ attempt to frame the hero on bribery charges; although the writers don’t make nearly as much of this latter twist as they could have, it’s quite unusual for a chapterplay script to even acknowledge the possible existence of police corruption.
The direction of Fred Brannon and Yakima Canutt and the cinematography of John MacBurnie is well above-average in G-Men; dialogue scenes are staged with more of an eye to balanced composition than usual (particularly in the villains’ plotting sessions), while an unusually high percentage of upward and downward shots are used to make the visuals more striking. The latter technique is particularly effective in the scene in which a police detective suddenly realizes that “Cameron” is really Murkland; the crucial sequence contains little dialogue but is carried off very dramatically, with close-ups of the detective staring down in wide-eyed horror at Murkland and Murkland looking up warily at the detective.
The action scenes are also neatly handled, with the shootout in the darkened office in Chapter Twelve being particularly well-shot. Fistfights are numerous but don’t dominate the proceedings to the extent they do in many other 1940s Republics; many of the serial’s brawls are quite brief, which leaves elbow room for suspense sequences (the gangsters’ stalking of R. J. Cook in Chapter Five, the subsequent scene with the booby-trapped Dictaphone) and for memorable non-fistfight action like the aforementioned office shootout or the gun battle at the used-car lot in Chapter Four–which has the hero making clever use of a dump truck as moving cover.
The Chapter Four fight in the shipyard office, the brief farmhouse fight in Chapter Six, the Chapter Ten office fight, and the climactic fight at the sanitarium are some of the best of the serial’s fistfights; Dale Van Sickel doubles star Clayton Moore while Tom Steele doubles action heavy Drew Allen, although they oddly switch “roles” in at least one brawl. Bud Wolfe, Dave Sharpe, Johnny Daheim, Carey Loftin, Gil Perkins, Duke Green, and Ken Terrell are all on hand as well, battling Van Sickel as various one-shot heavies; Green in particular lends extra bounce to the aforementioned Chapter Ten fight. George Magrill, whose career as a stuntman and minor heavy extended back to the silent era, also does his bit in one fight–and gets to deliver some funny dialogue to boot.
Most of the serial’s outdoor action takes place on the city streets of the Republic backlot, although there are also some chases on country roads and several trips to the studio’s farmhouse. The lumber yard that figures as a backdrop to the shootout in Chapter Two seems to be the “real thing,” as does the used-car lot that figures in Chapters Three and Four–although the latter could easily be Republic’s employee parking lot. The largely urban settings augment the gritty crime-film atmosphere of the serial; a foot chase or shootout on the hillsides at Iverson’s would have seemed a little out-of-place in G-Men.
G-Men’s chapter endings–as mentioned at the beginning of the review–are mostly derived from previous Republic serials; the great flooded-tunnel scene from Daredevils of the Red Circle, the farmhouse explosion from Captain America, and the motorcycle-off-the-cliff scene from Federal Operator 99 are among the borrowed cliffhangers. As in all later Republics, though, the borrowing is only noticeable if you’re familiar with the original sequences; the stock footage is slickly and seamlessly integrated with the new scenes. The few original cliffhangers are much less spectacular than the stock-footage ones, although the Chapter Ten ending–which has Drew Allen waiting to shoot Clayton Moore in a darkened apartment–is filmed very memorably and stylishly, with a blinking light-up sign outside the window intermittently illumining the killer, and a complete cessation of background music giving the scene a tense and silent ominousness.
Clayton Moore’s steely-eyed glare and quiet forcefulness make him an ideal serial “G-man;” whether he’s intently analyzing clues or just as intently shooting it out with heavies, he invariably comes off as tough, intelligent, and dedicated. Ramsay Ames is calmly professional as his extremely capable policewoman aide, Sgt. Frances Blake, sporting a rather unattractive short haircut in an apparent effort to look less like a glamor girl and more like a detective–but her considerable beauty and her wryly good-humored screen personality are still very much in evidence beneath the haircut and the professionalism.
Roy Barcroft is given one of his best serial showcases as Murkland and Cameron; only his turns as the Purple Monster and Captain Mephisto were as meaty. As Murkland he’s cynically sarcastic, almost swaggeringly confident, and slyly duplicitous when posing as the Commissioner–while as Cameron, he’s fearless, shrewd, and doggedly determined in the face of brutal treatment. Barcroft’s terrific dual performance is the cornerstone of the serial’s success; had Murkland been less memorably nasty or Cameron less sympathetic, there’d have been much less reason to be interested in the one’s crime wave and the other’s dangerous plight.
Drew Allen, as Murkland’s enforcer Duke Graham, makes an unusual but excellent action heavy; though youthful and even somewhat handsome, he’s just as vicious in behavior as uglier and more grizzled thugs like Kenne Duncan or Dick Curtis. He plays Duke as a cocky, trigger-happy punk, alternating between smug flippancy and sullen perplexity–and makes him seem like a decidedly realistic hoodlum, a characterization very much in keeping with the gangster-movie feel of the serial.
Stanley Price is also excellent as the slick Doc Benson, a crafty secondary heavy who’s quite capable of formulating plans on his own and never hestitates to order Duke around in Murkland’s absence; the shrewd and self-assured character is a far cry from the panic-stricken weasels Price usually played. Edmund Cobb is very good as the upright but rather choleric R. J. Cook, grumpily but admirably refusing to knuckle under to Murkland’s protection demands.
Jack O’Shea plays Price’s sanitarium assistant, Doug Aylesworth has a recurring part as a police detective, and Phil Warren is Clayton Moore’s G-man superior. Russell Whitman is another police detective, Frank O’Connor the District Attorney in the final scene, and Charles Sullivan a police patrolman. As aforementioned, the stunt team members play many incidental thug roles, with Steele and Van Sickel making by far the most appearances; Robert Barron, John Crawford, and Bob Wilke also have noticeable henchman bits. Barry Brooks is a furtive sanitarium aide, George Douglas a prison-hospital orderly, and Eddie Acuff makes the most of two brief appearances as a shady used-car dealer named Fiddler. LeRoy Mason provides the voice of Vic Murkland before the gangster begins to “imitate” the Commissioner’s voice (this dubbing, and the facial makeup Barcroft wears as the pre-surgery Murkland, helps to make it seems as if the villains have actually gone to some effort to disguise their leader as Cameron, instead of merely taking advantage of an implausibly strong pre-existing resemblance, as in Secret Service in Darkest Africa).
G-Men Never Forget, despite its frequent reliance on old footage, is a solid late entry in the Republic canon. In fact, one could wish that Republic had used it as a template for more of their later serials; an emphasis on tough and semi-realistic gang-busting–instead of improbably grandiose espionage schemes or science-fictional world-conquest plots–could have made other later Republics at once more interesting and less silly. It’s that gangbusters/gangland atmosphere–along with its well-balanced plotting and its excellent cast–that makes G-Men worthy to stand alongside earlier Republic chapterplays, stock footage and all.