Friday, January 28, 2011

Undercover Agent (Monogram, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Undercover Agent, which timed out in the version at just 49 minutes (though the American Film Institute Catalog lists 56 minutes), a 1939 Monogram production that has the interesting distinction of being the third film we’ve seen about the U.S. Postal Inspectors (after the 1936 Universal musical/melodrama Postal Inspector and the 1951 Alan Ladd thriller from Paramount, Appointment with Danger — the last being by far the best of the three even though it’s hardly a great film, or even one of Ladd’s most memorable vehicles), which despite the “thrilling” title is actually a pretty standard vehicle about an impoverished young couple who don’t have the money to get married.

The man is William Trent (Russell Gleason, who seems to have been Monogram’s attempt to create their own Robert Montgomery — Gleason is taller and dorkier-looking but the voices are remarkably similar), a clerk at a post office (though we never actually see him doing that) whose ambition is to join the Postal Inspectors, and who has just taken the exam for it and placed 73rd on the list — meaning he’ll likely get an appointment as a postal inspector in a year or two. The woman is Betty Madison (Shirley Deane), who works as a hat-check girl in a bookie joint owned by Bartell (Ralfe Harolde). Bartel’s business is down because the police have been putting the heat on him — he’s getting plenty of $2 players but the serious gamblers are staying away — and he learns that part of what’s hurting his business is the sale of sweepstakes tickets. So he decides to have counterfeit sweepstakes tickets made for the “Monte Carlo lottery” and sends one of his gang members to Paris so people who buy them will get confirmation receipts from France, adding to the verisimilitude of the scam. Betty has an alcoholic father, Thomas “Pop” Madison (J. M. Kerrigan, a favorite character actor of John Ford’s), who starts selling the phony sweepstakes tickets to pay his bar tab and get back a confirmation locket he once gave to Betty and then stole to use to pay for drinks.

Within a few days he’s doing so well he’s able to get back Betty’s locket and pay back their boarding-house landlady, Mrs. Minnow (Maude Eburne), the three months in back rent he and Betty owed her. Meanwhile, Trent takes Betty to Patrick Murphy’s pawn shop to buy her an engagement ring — only just as he’s about to leave, two robbers come into the shop and he shoots them with the Post Office service revolver he’s carrying. For that he’s acclaimed a hero in the local papers — and he gets a 90-day suspension without pay from his job for carrying his gun off Post Office premises. When Trent is offered a sweepstakes ticket, he immediately assumes it’s a scam and reports it to John Graham (Selmer Jackson), the boss who suspended him, offering to go undercover and dig up information on the mob that’s behind it. Graham says that they’re already aware of the scam and the fact that they’re using the mails for part of it, which gives the Post Office jurisdiction, but he agrees to let Trent investigate and Trent follows Bartell’s collector and traces the scam to him. Trent crashes Bartell’s place by posing as a bookie bettor who’s been cheated out of his winnings, only Betty has no idea what he’s doing and thinks he’s gone off the rails and is really gambling — so she dumps him. Then Thomas tells Trent where he’s been getting all the money he’s been making, and Trent tries to talk him out of selling anymore — and instead of sitting tight and letting the Postal Inspectors go through with their raid the next day, Thomas goes around town bitching about how he’s unwittingly been enlisted in a swindle. He shows up at Bartell’s demanding to get back all the money he’s collected from friends and neighbors who bought tickets from him, and Bartell and his men decide to hold him off and flee with the loot — only one of the baddies drops his gun and Thomas picks it up, and he, Trent and Betty hold the gangsters at bay until the Postal Inspectors arrive and take them into custody.

It’s not much of a movie and is considerably less thrilling than its title would indicate, though it’s directed by Howard Bretherton with a cool efficiency from a screenplay by Martin Mooney and Milton Raison. (Mooney was a New York crime reporter who in the early 1930’s served a jail term rather than name his sources to a grand jury — and Warner Bros. signed him to write crime stories and billed one of his most successful films, Bullets or Ballots, as “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” Once his 15 minutes were up, he passed out of Warners to cheaper studios like Monogram and PRC, where he moved up from writing to producing and where he made his most famous film, as producer of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir classic Detour.) It’s an oddly ordinary movie for such a hair-raising title, and the oddest thing is that J. M. Kerrigan’s remarkable character performance so totally steals the film from the nominal stars.