Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.

3 thoughts on “Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

  1. It’s not a bad little crime movie, well shot and well enough played. But it’s not much more than that really, and in all honesty it doesn’t pretend to be or need to be. anything more. It’s a good mid-range effort from Lewis and Ford, which means it’s pretty decent whichever way you cut it.

    Another thing about films noir needing a second viewing relates to the plotting in a lot of cases. Some can be so convoluted and/or twisty that the first time they’re seen it’s often all you can do to try to unravel the plot and work out exactly what’s happening. It then takes a later viewing to appreciate other aspects.

    1. I definitely agree with noir films needing second viewings. I actually find this a big part of their appeal- its such a pleasure to watch a film that makes some demands on the audience regards attention and effort, as opposed to modern film’s tendencies to treat audiences as some kind of idiots, sign-posting/hand-holding everything. Of course the main appeal of noir is just the dark, twisted sensibility of so much of it, the paranoia and grittiness. But of course the element of surprise, too. Its just so rare to be surprised by films, especially when someone such as me has seen so many of them .Its inevitable that viewers ‘wise-up’ to film-maker trickery and manipulation over time, and so telling that a genre such as noir can still manage to shock and surprise.

  2. Here’s another vote for second viewings on most noir films. Twisty plots — with holes big enough to drive a speeding getaway car through — are just part of the fun, and I daresay it’s also why these productions only seem to improve with age.

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