The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis

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Glenn Ford is no stranger to the dark streets of film noir, he’s walked them many times before, in “Gilda”, “The Big Heat” and “Human Desire.” In Joseph H. Lewis’ 1949 film, “The Undercover Man,” a low rent though first-class crime drama filmed in a semi-documentary nourish style. Treasury Agent Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) who is out to bring down the gangland syndicate leader known only as “The Big Fellow” leads a criminal investigation. It would sound ludicrous if it were not true that the IRS brought to justice real life gangster Al Capone, whose story this film tells a fictionalize version of. Based on a Collier’s magazine article called “Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone” by Frank Wilson, it tells the story of how the federal government finally caught Al Capone on income tax evasion.  The screenplay is credited to Sidney Boehm and Jack Rubin, though independent producer Robert Rossen is said to have had a say in the script.  Boehm would go on to write many noir films including “The Big Heat”, “Violent Saturday”, “Mystery Street” and “Side Street.”

Burnett Guffey’s gritty dark lit cinematography is filled with murky overcrowded city streets, dark movie theaters and seedy hotel rooms not fit for a two-dollar hooker but good enough for federal enforcement officers to shack up in during the investigation. It is a dark dingy world filled with squealers, bookies and murderers. In this part of town, the bookies are dropping dead, quicker than flies attacked by a blast of bug spray.undercover-poster1

Glenn Ford is a dour actor who barely breaks a smile here until the film’s ending. His government agent is at times tormented, driven, paranoid and almost beaten. He’s prepared to give up his job, until the mother of slain bookie Salvatore Rocco, hands over her son’s books, and tells him how she and many others came to America to get away from the Mafia in Italy, and how thanks to brave men like him, she and others no longer have to live in fear. The woman’s story brings tears to Agent Warren’s eyes and he decides stay on the case. Joseph H. Lewis states in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich that this scene was shot in one take using three cameras. He felt it was the only way he could capture the realistic emotions as portrayed by the actors. Nina Foch, who would have the lead role in Lewis’ “My Name is Julia Ross” is Judith, Warren’s wife. While she has some nice moments, Foch is generally wasted in a role that is of minor importance to the film. James Whitmore is on hand, in his film debut, as fellow T-Man George Pappas.

Lewis spent most of his career in the bargain basement department of filmmakers, though he proved himself a master of camera placement with some of the most unconventional shots to come out of poverty row. He was given the name “Wagon Wheels Joe” after he did one low budget oater that had more cowboys than actors in the cast. Since they could barely read their lines, Lewis, in order to distract the audience from the lack of talent, shot a scene with the camera looking through a wagon wheel. The shot was considered so artistic; it gave Lewis a reputation for placing his camera at unusual angles.

undercover-still1  While “The Undercover Man” was a second feature, it had a budget of about one million dollars and turned out to be the film on the double bill everyone wanted to see. Lewis’ noir films like the aforementioned “My Name is Julia Ross”, along with “So Dark the Night”, “Gun Crazy” and “The Big Combo” are required viewing for any serious film enthusiast.. Along with his noir work, Lewis’ filmography consisted of westerns, generally starring Bob Baker or Johnny Mack Brown. In the 1950’s he made two westerns with Randolph Scott however, his oddest western was the 1958 film “Terror in a Texas Town”, that opens with Sterling Hayden walking down the town street carrying a harpoon! There were war films like “Retreat Hell,” films of intrigue and even the East Side Kids in Poverty Row stuff like “Boys of the City”, “Pride of the Bowery” and “That Gang of Mine.” In the 1960’s, Lewis spent the final days of his career in television doing mostly western series like “The Rifleman”,  “Bonanza”, “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” He died in 2000.

“The Undercover Man” is a good crime thriller. It will not make you forget “My Name is Julia Ross” or “Gun Crazy” or “The Big Combo”, though it will remind you of what a large talent can do with just a small amount of money.

The Undercover Man will be on TCM on August 7th at 10PM EST.

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13 comments on “The Undercover Man (1949) Joseph H. Lewis

  1. Dave says:

    Awesome stuff here, John… you’re highlighting a number of noirs that are not only missing in my collection, but that I haven’t even seen. My favorite part of this review? Reading your excellent historical info and analysis, reaching the end, and then finding out that this one will be on TCM in just about a week! That is great news. I’m always up for some Glenn Ford.

    Outstanding work as usual, John. You’re ability to include historical context and background info on films is second to none.

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  2. John Greco says:

    Thanks Dave, If you do watch this I would like to know what you thought. If you have not seen any of Lewis’ other noir work mentioned they are must to catch up on.

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  3. Dave says:

    I’ve seen two other Lewis films — Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. Gun Crazy seems to be the more highly praised of the two and while I do like it, I definitely prefer The Big Combo. That Alton photography in The Big Combo is spectacular!

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  4. John Greco says:

    Alton’s work is very good, as he always is, in The Big Combo, there are some really great scenes. The photography is definitely more dark and moody.

    “Gun Crazy” is even more low budget that “The Big Combo” and I would even a little wilder, a lot of sexual symbolism. Tough decision for me, I really like both.

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  5. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I saw this when TCM showed it a couple of weeks ago and found it a very satisfying little noir. It’s hard to believe that in the late 40s the studios churned out wonderfully entertaining noirs like this by the dozen each year, some like this one with first-rate directors, actors, and cinematographers. This one had a couple of memorably staged, photographed, and edited sequences. I’m thinking of the one where Salvatore Rocco is assassinated in the street, which reminded me of a similar sequence in “The Godfather” and also the killing in the alley. I reran the latter in slow motion a couple of times and was most impressed with the way it was put together. Ford was good at what he does best, underplaying a purposeful man with a bee in his bonnet. I agree about Foch. Her role was so small that I’m surprised she got second billing. I especially liked Barry Kelley, who played the mob lawyer. I found the element of the collusion of crime and legitimate business activity most interesting, something that also is prominent in “The Big Heat.” All in all, a good summation of the movie and of Lewis’s work, and I concur with your recommendation of this film, especially for anyone interested in film noir or Lewis.

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  6. John Greco says:

    R.D. – So true – studios just pumped these films out and so many were so good. The assassination of Salvatore Rocco is really nicely done. I also liked the scene where his mother comes and gives Ford the books and tell him how grateful she is for men like him. Thanks for mentioning Barry Kelley, his was an interesting part that I forgot to discuss. All in all a nicely done film. Too bad Lewis never got to do an “A” production.

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  7. Sam Juliano says:

    My apologies for getting over here late. I have seen GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO, splendid films both, but as far as THE UNDERCOVER AGENT I’m sorry to say I have not. I would say that the one genre that I haven’t gone to exhaustively is film noir, and there more than a few I still need to investigate. Of course any film that features Capone’s character has always served as an irrefutable hook, but it’s interesting that the “dour” Ford has the lead. I do remember him quite well in Lang’s THE BIG HEAT, which of course is one of the greatest of all noirs, and he was outstanding. Was amused to read about the story behind “Wagon Wheels Joe” as well as the amazing fact that as a B feature, the film was the one really desired. Lewis was a talented helmer, who as you say, brought together a number of elements to create pictures that sparkled in more ways than one. An impeccable-written and enthusiastic piece here.

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  8. John Greco says:

    Sam – always appreciate your input. I was also surprised to see Ford in a low budget film at this point in his career. I recently recorded HUMAN DESIRE on my dvr which Ford, and GLoria Grahame, did around the same period as THE BIG HEAT with Lang. I hope to write something on that in the future.

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  9. Bill says:

    Glad to finally see this one. Great location shots. A very good noir seldom given the credit it deserves. Thanks.

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  10. John Greco says:

    Bill, this is a film that deserves more attention that it gets. Thanks!!

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  11. […] Terror in a Texas town (1958) que le sirvió de despedida, pasando por el rocoso police procedural Relato criminal (1949), un trabajo con ciertos puntos de contacto con este pero con una tono visual verista en […]

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  12. […] accurate look at how the Feds got Capone, take a look at the 1949 film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, “The Undercover Man.” The names have been fictionalized but this film was based on an article by Federal agent Frank […]

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  13. […] accurate look at how the Feds got Capone, take a look at the 1949 film directed by Joseph H. Lewis, “The Undercover Man.” The names have been fictionalized but this film was based on an article by Federal agent Frank […]

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