Before the advent of television, one popular format on radio was “true crime” dramas. These were programs based on quasi-realism, which helped give half-hour shows credibility and an excuse to use violence in the name of public information. Like the long-running True Detective, radio series such as Gangbusters, Treasury Agent, Dragnet, and Tales of Texas Rangers were all ostensibly based on actual case files with the consultation of police veterans and local law enforcement departments. The first decade of television featured many such series, some adaptations of existing radio programs, others created for the new medium. Gangbusters producer Philip Lord, who established the recurring tone of praise and tribute for law enforcement agents, created many such shows employing real life government agents who provided introductions and narrated audio wanted posters for these series.
“True crime” shows had many advantages during the 1950s. Writers for both radio and TV shows with such formats considered themselves lucky. Instead of having to create a new plot every seven days, they merely had to dramatize already existing files. During the McCarthy era, shows like I Led Three Lives with close connections to the FBI, the Treasury, or other agencies, could keep the blacklisters at bay due to their cooperation in anti-Communist propaganda. And sponsors appreciated the opportunity to boost their civic and patriotic images by visibly championing the stalwart protectors of the public good.
Federal Men, also known as Treasury Men in Action, was one of this black-and-white breed. In fact, it was one of the earliest, debuting on September 11, 1950, and running for five seasons on ABC. In each episode, the “Chief” (Walter Greaza) served as narrator. He introduced each story by stating which division of the Treasury was responsible for the investigation, gave the case a file number, and assigned that week’s agents their duties. The cases ranged from counterfeiters to bootleggers to smugglers—anything that might interest the U.S. Secret Service.
While the detective work of the agents drove the plots, most of the screen time was devoted to the crooks, their schemes, and their motivations. They weren’t always starkly drawn baddies. For example, “The Case of the Man Outside” dealt with a counterfeit operation inside a California prison. One sympathetic inmate wanted to distance himself from the ring so not to jeopardize his possible parole. “The Case of the Black Sheep” was about a young man who turned to crime in revenge against a father he felt wasn’t sympathetic enough to him. “The Case of the Little Tin Box” and “The Case of the Man Trap,” both about businessmen avoiding their tax obligations, focused on young men driven by the wiles of dames who hoped their young fella could free them from overbearing sugar-daddies.
While the fifth season of the show has been available for several years on DVD, viewers can now experience those 16 episodes in a new collector’s edition. And it’s collectors of 1950s television who will be most interested in this three-disc set, despite the fact the more famous guest-stars listed in the promotions aren’t on any of these adventures. More to the point, few Americans saw this series when it originally aired. Back then, when many cities had only one or two stations in their region and most were only on the air from dawn to dusk, ABC was not yet a major player in television. In 1952, for example, ABC had only 15 affiliates which grew to 60 by 1959, four years after the end of Federal Men. So just because older viewers never heard of the series is no reflection on its quality. It’s very much on a par with the rest of the offerings in the “True Crime” genre.
So, for those who enjoy this kind of nostalgia, Federal Men is an entertaining time capsule. Once again, you can root for the guys seeking out tax cheats.