Monday, July 13, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: The Undercover Man (1949)

Back in August of last year, I got the devastatingly brilliant idea—okay, I stole it from someone else’s blog…happy now?—to institute a weekly feature here at TDOY whereupon I would write reviews of classic films that are not, unfortunately, available here for purchase on Region 1 in the U.S. or Canada. It started out great guns, with posts on The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), The Fugitive (1947) and Repulsion (1965—which I believe has now been released on Region 1), and then it sort of tapered off to…well, for the sake of argument, let’s just call it “laziness.”

So as part of my new-found devotion to putting something up here everyday (barring famine, floods or a case of the sniffles) I decided to apply the paddles to this feature by taking a peek at the 1949 noir classic The Undercover Man—the reason for which I’ll reveal in a teensy bit. This crackerjack suspense thriller, directed by cult fave Joseph H. Lewis, stars Glenn Ford as a Treasury agent determined to bring down an underworld figure known only as “Big Fellow” with the help of subpoenas and two dedicated partners in James Whitmore (in his feature film debut) and David Wolfe. Ford’s Frank Warren—who’s sort of a Dave Bannion-on-decaf—is supposed to meet up with a man (Robert Osterloh) who’s willing to spill the beans on the mob boss’ operation…but he’s croaked as soon as he leaves the movie theatre where he and Warren palavered. (There’s a nice directorial touch from Lewis as he shows the hand of the dead stoolie clutching a box of Cracker Jack, one of his peccadilloes [the stoolie's, not the director's].) Warren and Company then move on to bookkeeper Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Caruso), who also gets gunned down shortly after reconciling with his young daughter—she and her grandmother (Esther Minciotti, ma to Ernest Borgnine in Marty), however, provide the information needed to break the case (they have possession of a ledger Rocco used to keep Big Fellow’s accounts) and in the end, Big Fellow ends up in a justifiably Big House.

You’re probably wondering how a film that follows the slightly dull proceedings of bringing a mobster down for tax evasion (but hey—that’s how they ended up nailing Capone) could generate much excitement, but it’s a testament to both Lewis’ direction and a taut script by Jack Rubin and Sydney Boehm (who also wrote The Big Heat, which might explain the similarity between Ford’s Treasury agent and hard-as-nails Heat cop) that Man has some truly edge-of-your-seat moments. (The script has some basis in fact, having been inspired by an article, “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone,” by Frank J. Wilson.) The highlight of the film is when the mob’s crooked mouthpiece, played by Barry Kelley, sells out his bosses to cut the best possible deal for himself and a few of their men follow him and Warren slowly in a car as they’re walking, guns at the ready. (Ford says to Kelley: “I’m just as scared as you are.”) I’ve been a long-time fan of Lewis’, who directed many different types of pictures but seemed to find a niche in film noir with favorites like My Name is Julia Ross (1945) and So Dark the Night (1946)—though his best-known contributions to the style remain Gun Crazy (1950; a.k.a. Deadly is the Female) and The Big Combo (1955). Malvin Wald was also credited with additional dialogue, much of it the hard-boiled variety; I particularly enjoyed when Ford confronts Kelley with a subpoena, saying: “I came here to borrow some books—here’s my library card…”

For a movie that seems to have been filmed on the cheap, Man also boasts superior acting turns from the entire cast; in addition to those already named the film also features Nina Foch (who must have been a good luck charm for Lewis since she starred in Ross, the film that made people sit up and take notice…though she’s relegated to nothing else than the “supportive wife” in Man), Howard St. John, Frank Tweddell, John F. Hamilton and Leo Penn (Chris, Michael and Sean’s old man). You also catch in smaller roles Patricia Barry (billed as White), Kay Medford, Joe Mantell…and John Ireland, who does the brief narration at the beginning of the picture.

I chose to write about Man today because for those of you without region-free players (or you may just not want to pony up the scratch for a copy) can catch it on TCM this evening as part of a festival of “gangster” films being showcased every Monday (it’s a tie-in with Public Enemies [2009], which turned out to be good for something after all) that will kick off in about an hour with Eddie G. and Bogie in Bullets or Ballots (1936) at 8pm, followed by the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949). Man’s on deck at 11:30, with The Mob (1951, an interesting flick endorsed not only by me but by Cultureshark’s Rick Brooks), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958) and Bunco Squad (1950) after that. When I purchased Man on Region 2 (or Relato Criminal, as it says on the cover) I didn’t have TCM so I’m pretty sure I could have waited but it’s a first-rate print (if a bit too dark in places) that also contains a pair of trailers for I Am the Law (1938) and Road to Bali (1952). (I’m still trying to figure that last connection out.)

2 comments:

MikeG said...

Nicely done commentary on Man; a lot here I didn't know (which isn't all that unusual) and thanks for the TCM lineup reminder; I'm going to DVR all of them. When I'll watch is another story. And if somebody could tell me how to copy a DVD from the ATT&T U-verse DVR, I'd appreciate it.

Doc Quatermass said...

I've long been a fan of the under-rated James Whitmore since he played a criminologist in the 1969 series, MY FRIEND TONY which also had Mary Frann. He befriended an waif who was a pickpocket during his service in WW II Italy and the grown up kid shows up and becomes his legman on cases. Cancelation after one season was as devastating as when they canceled T.H.E. Cat with Robert Loggia. Happy to see Whitmore in THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR (1950) and FACE OF FIRE (1959) when TNT use to run old movies before TCM was brought into existence.