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An OK but improbable early Bette Davis crime melodrama with the stars sustaining interest in the action.
Art-2212 May 1999
This crime melodrama is never dull and has some very exciting moments, although the action is improbable. It's well-paced with fine acting: young and beautiful Bette Davis is enjoyable to watch, but her sophistication seems a bit out of place while working for a hood; George Brent is as suave as ever; and Ricardo Cortez makes a good heavy, with lighting effects making him look more sinister. I also liked the acting of many of the supporting characters such as Robert Strange (who is a standout), J. Carroll Naish and Joseph Sawyer, as three of Cortez's murdering henchmen. Anyone who likes the genre should like this film.

Martin Mooney, who provided the story on which this film is based, was a newspaper man and well aware that the government was sending noted racketeers up the river for income tax evasion. Al 'Scarface' Capone was indicted by a federal grand jury for that offense and spent eight years behind bars starting in 1931.
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Warner Brothers doing what it did best
blanche-218 January 2008
George Brent is a "Special Agent" in this 1935 crime drama also starring Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez. The original story was written by a newspaperman and is most likely based on the Al Capone case. Brent plays a reporter, Bill Bradford, but his job is a cover -he's an undercover Federal agent after a crook, Alexander Carston (Cortez) for tax evasion. His entrée into the books of Carston's organization is the bookkeeper, Julie Gardner, with whom he's also in love. After the case is built, Carston is arrested and Julie is taken into protective custody. But can she really be protected against Carston?

This is a fairly routine drama with good acting and some solid action. Davis is very young and blonde here, and not as glamorized as she is in other early films - "The Man Who Played God," "Fashions of 1934" or "Ex-Lady" but nevertheless quite pretty. She's a little too classy to be a mob bookkeeper; as the character, however, she exhibits intelligence, which certainly Julie would have. Brent is his usual pleasant self as Bill, and Cortez is a sinister gangster.

The only part of the film that gave me a giggle was the riddling of men with machine guns as they continued to stand until their bodies must have had more holes than Swiss cheese before dramatically falling. Certainly they would have been dead long before the 100th bullet.

Interesting for early Davis and the always good Cortez.
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Pretty typical 30s Warner Brothers crime drama
MartinHafer28 May 2007
In the 1930s, Warner Brothers was the place for gangster films, as they churned out a huge number of high-quality films in this genre. While this one did NOT star the usual gangster stars of the day (Cagney or Edward G. Robinson), it star the ever-capable George Brent as a federal agent and Ricardo Cortez as an Al Capone-like thug. I particularly liked Cortez's little speech to Brent that men like him are above the law and can never be convicted--it was a very exciting scene. In addition to these two, the film also stars Bette Davis in a pretty decent role as Cortez's bookkeeper. The film features good writing, dialog and acting and while not the greatest gangster film, it is very good and watchable. Oh, and by the way, the ending is pretty exciting (and violent), so it won't disappoint.

By the way, if you see the film and it seems familiar, this appears to be a reworking of the plot from the MGM film THE SECRET SIX. There are just too many similarities to be coincidental, as both heroes are government agents whose cover is newspaper reporter.
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some memorable scenes
akasbarian21 January 2016
Above-average gangster film, typical of the '30s genre. Fun watching, but nothing too extraordinary...EXCEPT some of the close-up scenes involving Ricardo Cortez. With the help of some great lighting, his eyes and facial expressions are chillingly sinister! In particular, there is his private showdown with Armitage (Robert Strange)...simply unforgettable.

I also found Cortez's expressions to be reminiscent of Pacino in the Godfather (or should i say the reverse)...i wonder if Pacino studied this film at some point.

Bette Davis clearly showed great acting chops, but her role was fairly typecast and thus limited her range somewhat. George Brent did just fine...his role was probably the most straightforward. The supporting cast was outstanding...lots of subplots, double-crosses, and idiosyncrasies that enriched the story.
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Darling, there is nothing more important than food.
lastliberal16 May 2007
Bette Davis was already an established actress when she did this film with 27 movies under her belt, and an Oscar nomination for Of Human Bondage. She would win an Oscar for Dangerous the same year this film was released. This is a different Bette Davis than most of us are used to seeing. She was a cute blonde in this film and here acting ability was very evident even in this average gangster flick.

This flick had a good story about trying to bring down a mobster (Ricardo Cortez) with a T-Man (George Brent) posing as a newspaper reporter. You have to suspend belief at some of the story, but it's not 2007! Brent and Davis would join forces later with Bogey and Ronald Reagan in the Oscar-nominated Dark Victory.
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Bette's own code
bkoganbing21 January 2016
The only thing about Special Agent worth remembering is that for Bette Davis it was the film that she did immediately prior to her first Oscar winner Dangerous. Other than that it was the kind of potboiler programmer that Warner Brothers kept casting her in despite acclaim she got for a few films like Of Human Bondage.

At least she got her favorite leading man in Special Agent and in the title role. George Brent has the perfect cover for being a Special Agent for the Treasury Department. He's a reporter which means he can go places see things and ask questions and no one suspects. Least of all gambler/racketeer Ricardo Cortez who Brent has been working on for years to take down.

Of course this film was done with the successful prosecution of Al Capone in the mind of the movie-going public. Davis keeps Cortez's books and Brent is keeping company with her. Here the story is rather vague. Did he like her before or after he learned she was keeper of the records in her own code so even Cortez can't decipher it. His convincing Bette to turn on Cortez wasn't really convincing to me.

Coming off best in this film is Ricardo Cortez. He is one shrewd article who has his fingers everywhere, it's why no one's caught him till now and Brent nearly doesn't get him this time.

Special Agent did Bette Davis and George Brent no harm and great things were in the offing for Bette Davis.
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"Helping you would be helping myself to a handful of clouds"
hwg1957-102-26570418 June 2017
Warning: Spoilers
A newspaper reporter who is really a treasury agent brings a mobster to justice with the help of his girlfriend who does the accounts for said mobster. It is a routine Warner Brothers gangster film. It's main strength is the splendid dialogue such as the line above, a mixture of poetry and realism.

An underused Bette Davis and a bland George Brent as the accountant and the agent respectively are OK. Their scenes together are not as interesting as the gangster scenes. Ricardo Cortez (who did a good hero or a good villain) stands out as the chief mobster with the icy eyes. He is supported in his gang by a fine gallery of character actors like Jack La Rue, Joe Sawyer, J. Carrol Naish and Paul Guilfoyle. The unique Charles Middleton pops up for a brief scene as a policeman.

It was directed by William Keighley who made some better films but this one moves along nicely and doesn't outstay its welcome.
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Never has hogwash been so enjoyable.
mark.waltz17 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Perhaps because of her lengthy career and well-known toughness, it is hard to picture Betty Davis walking the streets, searching for a job and ending up working for a mobster because she can't find anything else. She works for the notoriously racketeer Ricardo Cortez who is absolutely excellent showing charm and ruthlessness as he fools the government as to the nature of his business. Davis is his bookkeeper who knows his secrets and secretly betrays him with reporter / special agent George Brent who could maneuver secrets out of presidential advisors. Cortez has managed to escape justice as his enemies and those who portray him fall dead around him, but it is only a matter of time for any bully irregardless of their business dealings and power before they fall into the pit of earthly justice.

Of course the feds go after Cortez for tax evasion just like Al Capone, but it is only a matter of time before he faces Justice in a completely different way. The three stars are perfectly cast in their parts and that creates a spark that makes this above average in the string of similar films at Warner Brothers did throughout the 1930's and even into the 1940's. It is obvious that Bette puts her all into the park even though it was a B movie that she was desperately trying to get away from by this point in her career.

Everybody in the supporting cast delivers as well from the accountants confronted by Cortez for skimming off the top of the prophets (trembling as he tries to buy his way out of certain death) and a police stool pigeon who steals information to give to Cortez. Brent is brilliant as he continues to fool Cortez who thinks he's providing him with information needed to protect him as he sets Cortez up for his downfall. You have to look past the obvious flaws and enjoy this for the snap, crackling way that this is developed and resolved, and once again showing that justice always prevails no matter how big the man being taken down is....or thinks he is.
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Davis is great, but Jack Larue and Robert Strange are better!
JohnHowardReid12 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Director: WILLIAM KEIGHLEY. Screenplay: Laird Doyle, Abem Finkel. Story idea: Martin Mooney. Photography: Sid Hickox. Film editor: Clarence Kolster. Art director: Esdras Hartley. Music director: Leo F. Forbstein. Producers: Sam Bischoff in association with Martin Mooney. A Claridge Picture.

Copyright 20 September 1935 by Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. Presented by Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc and The Vitaphone Corp. New York opening at the Strand: 18 September 1935. Australian release: 25 December 1935. 9 reels. 76 minutes.

SYNOPSIS: Agent goes undercover as a friendly reporter to get the goods on an elusive gangster. He romances the crime czar's book- keeper, but falls in love with the girl.

NOTES: Re-made by Warner Bros in 1940 as "Gambling on the High Seas" with Jane Wyman, Wayne Morris and Gilbert Roland.

COMMENT: Here's a script that would undoubtedly have made an engrossing "B" picture, now dressed up with such appealing production values, it offers superlative entertainment as an "A".

In addition to its pacy yet meticulous direction, and moodily atmospheric photography, the picture presents real class in its cast. For once the goodies almost keep level with the heavies. Brent is ideal as the crusading hero, whilst Miss Davis offers just the right touch of dowdy appeal to her in-too-deep book-keeper. In a much smaller role, Pichel delivers some effective lines as a the D.A.

On the heavies' side of the ledger, the opposition can scarce go wrong with actors of the caliber of Ricardo Cortez (a truly frightening performance), J. Carroll Naish (one of his most sinister roles), Joe Sawyer (hideously convincing) and treacherous Paul Guilfoyle. Even William B. Davidson has a half-decent role for once as a crooked lawyer. Keen cameo watchers will also spot Wheeler Oakman as the out-of-town kidnapper. And back with the good guys, you'll notice Charles Middleton and Thomas Jackson have small roles as office cops who relay information to Emmett Vogan's radio announcer.

Frankly, though, I thought the two really stand-out players were Jack LaRue and Robert Strange. The former is wonderfully bent, whilst the latter, playing a crooked crook, gives such a nervily charismatic performance as to steal a scene from even the fiendishly impassive Cortez. The sequence in which LaRue inveigles Strange into parting with $50,000 is a gem.

OTHER VIEWS: Justly described by Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times as "a crisp, fast-moving and thoroughly entertaining melodrama", it's a shame that Special Agent has such a poor reputation today.

The reason for this peculiar and totally undeserved downgrade is simply due to Bette Davis, who spent more than fifty unrelenting years attacking this film (and others she claims she was "forced into" by Jack L. Warner around this time) on the grounds that both the movie and the role were unworthy of her vastly superior talents.

Her part admittedly is third in importance to Cortez and Brent. Also it offers few opportunities for scene-chewing or look-at-me- I'm-a-great-actress hysterics. But the part is by no means the "stinker" Miss Davis so often described, and her performance is actually quite apt and very suitably subdued.
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Warner Gangster Pic
Michael_Elliott25 February 2008
Special Agent (1935)

** 1/2 (out of 4)

A Fed (George Brent) goes undercover to bring down a gangster (Ricardo Cortez) but he's going to need help from the gangster's book keeper (Bette Davis). This is pretty typical stuff from Warner and their gangster pictures but it's brought up a few levels by the impressive cast. I'm not a big fan of Brent but he makes for a good lead here and delivers a fine performance. Cortez steals the show as the gangster and Davis is decent in her role. The supporting cast includes Henry O'Neill, J. Carrol Naish and Joe Sawyer. The story really doesn't contain anything new or fresh but if you're a fan of these Warner pictures then this one should keep you entertained through its short running time.
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