Friday, August 14, 2009

The Undercover Man (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One movie Charles and I watched last night was The Undercover Man, made in 1949 and produced by Robert Rossen, though he gave over the writing duties to other people — Sydney Boehm and Jack Rubin, with additional dialogue by Malvin Wald — and it was directed by someone else as well: Joseph H. Lewis, about to end his long apprenticeship on Western, horror and gangster “B”’s and about to go from this film to his first masterpiece, Gun Crazy. The film began life as a true story, narrated by magazine writer Frank J. Wilson in a piece called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone,” though according to Robert Osborne (who introduced the film on TCM as part of a night devoted to undercover cops) the filmmakers weren’t allowed by Columbia’s legal department to use Capone’s name so they referred to him only as “The Big Fellow.” (One wonders why they couldn’t use Capone’s name, since the real Capone had died in 1946, three years before the film was made.) They also set the film in the (1949) present instead of doing it as a 1920’s period piece.

The Undercover Man ends up as a quite straightforward police-procedural thriller in which Glenn Ford plays Treasury agent Frank Warren, who frequently has to absent himself from his Washington, D.C. home and his wife Judith (Nina Foch, reunited with Lewis four years after My Name Is Julia Ross — though the character is a one-dimensional Long-Suffering Wife and, compared to her genuinely conflicted playing in Julia Ross, here she’s playing a part she could have played in her sleep, and through much of the film that looks like exactly what she’s doing) to go on long case assignments at considerable physical risk to himself. He travels to a carefully unnamed city (Columbia apparently shot this under the working title Chicago Story but evidently decided that even giving the film such a specific place was risking legal complications) to build a case against the “Big Fellow” and his extensive criminal enterprise, and to do this he stages a series of wide-open raids on ordinary retail businesses that offer secret sidelines in bookmaking, drug dealing and other illegal trades — not so much to nail the small-time proprietors of these establishments than to seize their books and use them to get testimony against the “Big Fellow.”

While the title is a cheat — at no time during the movie do we see either Glenn Ford or anyone else playing a representative of law enforcement actually operating undercover — what comes through most strongly is the sheer extent of the control the “Big Fellow” and his syndicate have over the city. The film’s most interesting character is the “Big Fellow”’s combination attorney and enforcer, Edward J. O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), who seems able to intimidate potential witnesses into silence just by staring at them and glowering — and throughout the movie the syndicate is depicted as so powerful they can murder people in broad daylight with utter impunity because everyone in eyeshot is so terrified of the prospect of being next that they’ll conveniently “forget” they ever saw anything (much the way the drug cartels, the Crips and the Bloods, and their equivalent gangs in the Latino-American communities operate today).

Throughout the movie Frank Warren is in a Kafka-esque loop in which just when he seems to have got a witness actually willing to testify against the mob, they’re killed — and finally when he is able to assemble a handful of former syndicate small-fry who can testify to the “Big Fellow”’s crimes, and keep them alive long enough to get a grand jury indictment against the “Big Fellow” and the other syndicate principals, he finds to his horror that even before the names of the people on the jury pool are released to the court, the syndicate has got hold of them and either bribed or scared them into guaranteeing an acquittal. (O’Rourke leaks this information to Warren and is himself killed — run over by a car — for his pains.) Eventually the judge in the case (Everett Glass) assures the prosecution a fair trial by arranging a last-minute swap of jury panels with another judge in another case, and the trial goes forward and leads to convictions.

The Undercover Man has some powerful scenes — notably one in which the grandmother of a girl whose dad was killed by the syndicate when he was about to testify recalls for him the days of her childhood in Italy, when the Mafia (the original camorra) ran roughshod over her little village and scared everybody into paying them — and, in a conversation that becomes even more poignant because she speaks only Italian and her granddaughter has to interpret for her, she convinces Warren, who’d been on the point of giving up the case and his Treasury career and retiring to a farm with his wife, to stick it out — but most of it is pretty straightforward cops-and-robbers stuff, and Lewis turns in a well-paced job of direction but without his usual stylistic flair in a film that really only barely counts as noir even though The Film Noir Encyclopedia lists it.

It’s also a good film for the Schreiber theorists — the advocates for the writer, not the director, as auteur — because it’s really a lot closer in mood and overall approach to Sydney Boehm’s other movies (especially The Big Heat and Rogue Cop) than to Lewis’s. Indeed, at some points it seems like a beta version of The Big Heat, especially since Glenn Ford is the star in both, though The Big Heat benefits not only from Fritz Lang’s masterly direction but also a story that kills off Ford’s wife early on and gives him a powerful personal motive, as well as his professional one, for taking on the syndicate.