Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Undercover Man (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM as part of a day-long salute to Glenn Ford — also the auspices under which they’d recently shown Interrupted Melody — a 1949 quasi-noir thriller called The Undercover Man, produced by Robert Rossen (though he neither directed nor had anything — at least anything credit-worthy — to do with the script), directed by Joseph H. Lewis (the same year he made his noir masterpiece, Gun Crazy) and written by Jack Rubin and Sydney Boehm based on a magazine article called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank J. Wilson. The movie’s plot is obviously based on the real case against Al Capone — who was ultimately tried and convicted in federal court of income-tax evasion after state authorities had been unable to make any other charges against him, including murder, stick — even though the film’s physical reality is that of 1949 instead of the early 1930’s. The Capone character is referred to only as “The Big Fellow” (and he’s a spectral presence through much of the film, though actor Ken Harvey is credited as playing “Big Man” on and the principal good guy is Internal Revenue Service enforcement agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) who’s out to tag the “Big Fellow” for a $3 million tax bill and send him to prison in the bargain. Only he’s constantly being stymied by the breathtaking reach of the Big Fellow’s operation, which seems to be able not only either to destroy or corrupt any local police officer who gets anywhere near him. At the start of the film Warren has a lead on a former Big Fellow accountant named Zander (Robert Osterloh), who’s willing to turn state’s evidence in return for 10 percent of any back taxes the government collects from the Big Fellow; but the Big Fellow’s hired killers nail Zander and kill him in a drive-by shooting before Warren has a chance to get any information from him. Then Warren gets a lead on another accountant, Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Caruso, whose powerful performance adds weight and gangster-film credibility), whose family he’s already run into — Rocco’s daughter Rosa (Joan Lazer), with her child’s innocence, was ready to talk to Warren when he came around earlier investigating Zander’s death, but her mom Theresa (Angela Clarke) shut her up — only the long arm of the Big Fellow’s gang hits Rocco as well. Warren has Inspector Herzog (Frank Twedell), his friend on the local police force (the city is unspecified but we presume it’s Chicago, even though one shot has some famous L.A. landmarks in it), do raids on all the Big Fellow’s illegal gambling establishments, including convenience stores that sell horse-race bets or numbers on the side, knowing he doesn’t have enough evidence to hold the proprietors before the Big Fellow’s omnipresent attorney, Edward J. O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), gets them released. What Warren is really after is the handwritten account books kept by these establishments and recording their transactions, so he can look for who’s making the data entries and see if he can identify at least one person involved in the gang’s financial transactions that can be “turned” to a witness against them.

He finally finds one in Sidney Gordon (Leo Penn, real-life father of Sean and Michael Penn), a young man who took the job unknowingly — like the central character of John Grisham’s The Firm, he thought he was being hired by a legitimate company instead of a criminal enterprise — and when he realizes what he’s been doing and the physical danger it’s put him through, he and his wife Muriel (Patricia White, later Patricia Barry) flee to California, where Warren tracks them down. Eventually he ends up with three witnesses whose testimony can convict the Big Fellow if he can keep them alive long enough — the Gordons and Gladys LaVerne (Kay Medford), the stripper Rocco was having an affair with — only O’Rourke slips Warren another curveball: he tells him that the Big Fellow already has the list of prospective jurors for his upcoming trial and has managed either to bribe or intimidate all of them into guaranteeing him an acquittal. Warren and the prosecutors handling the case manage to leak this information to the judge (Everett Glass), who solves the problem by switching jury panels with another judge in the same courtroom, and the Big Fellow is duly convicted and Warren is finally reunited with his long-suffering wife Judith (Nina Foch, billed second but with surprisingly little screen time). It seems odd that the writers do so little with Judith Warren as a character — maybe I’ve been watching too many Lifetime movies lately, but I couldn’t help but anticipate a climax in which the baddies would either knock off Judith or kidnap her and tell Frank they would release her only if he dropped the case against them. Instead, aside from one transitory bit of dialogue in which O’Rourke asks Warren, “By the way, how’s your wife?,” very little is done with her. Indeed, the Warrens see so little of each other — when he starts the case against the Big Fellow he’s just wrapped up another case that has kept them separated for two years — that when one of his fellow agents asks if he has any children, I joked, “Of course he doesn’t have any kids! He and his wife are never together long enough to have sex!” What The Undercover Man does do well is document the almost Kafka-esque reach of the Big Fellow’s gang, able to track down and eliminate virtually all the potential witnesses against it, learn the names of prospective jurors weeks before the judge in the case does, and have so many fingers in the local police that one of the most pathetic (in the good sense) characters in the movie is police sergeant Shannon (John F. Hamilton), who rose from beat cop to captain only to be busted to desk sergeant after he staged a raid on one of the Big Fellow’s enterprises that was supposed to be “protected” by the Big Fellow’s well-placed and almost ubiquitous bribes.

The Undercover Man has been called a film noir, and thanks to director Lewis it at least looks like one — the man who as a quickie “B” Western director at Universal had been called “Wagon-Wheel Joe” because he owned a collection of wagon wheels and would place one between the camera and the actors whenever he filmed a particularly banal or stupid dialogue scene so audiences would note the creativity of the visuals rather than the idiocy of the lines manages to find plenty of equivalents here, shooting through railings, gratings, in shadows and half-lights and achieving the chiaroscuro look of classic noir. What it doesn’t have is the moral ambiguity that’s the other key ingredient in film noir: Glenn Ford’s IRS agent is 100 percent good and the criminals are 100 percent bad, and there aren’t any characters with the marvelous ambiguity of Gloria Grahame’s role in The Big Heat, made four years later — also with Glenn Ford playing an incorruptible cop in a corrupt community run by a shadowy but seemingly omnipotent crime boss, and also scripted by Sidney Boehm, but with Ford’s character given a personal “edge” by the murder of his wife by the baddies and his willingness to use extra-legal means to avenge her. There are shards of genuine noir conflicts in the Roccos and the Gordons, and a truly memorable performance by Italian-born actress Esther Minciotti as Rocco’s mother Maria (whose own experience with banditti in the old country clearly makes her impatient with her son’s willingness to shield them here), but for the most part The Undercover Man is an old-line police-procedural thriller dressed up in the visual trappings of film noir. Fortunately the magnificent Gun Crazy, with crooks instead of cops at the center of the story and with plenty of moral conflicts and ambiguities, was next up on director Lewis’s agenda!