The Undercover Man gives off an early vibe akin to Anthony Mann’s T-Men thanks to a disclaimer reading something like this: Behind the big headlines are stories of ordinary men and women with extraordinary courage. This picture concerns one of those men.
However, the title is a bit of a misnomer. It is about government treasury agents, among them Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) and George Pappas (James Whitmore in his debut), but the real “undercover man” is the stoolie looking to spill the dope on the Big Fella — a stylized, faceless take on Al Capone.
As is, Joseph H. Lewis’s picture plays as more of an updated (or out of date) riff on the Untouchables and the Capone story. Instead of guns constantly blazing, they’re trying to get to the mob kingpin another way: His taxes. Thus, it relies on the persistence of our protagonists to see the story to completion.
While the characterizations are worthwhile — Glenn Ford was born to play these types of stalwart tough guy roles — the documentary-styled drama itself feels mostly stodgy and uninspired. Especially given the B mavericks pedigree for punchy and rather unnerving material with unconventional flourishes, it’s rather disappointing to admit this one feels quite run-of-the-mill — at least content-wise.
Lewis still develops engaging scenes from the outset including the botched rendezvous staged at the train station. After their crackerjack chomping canary gets it unceremoniously, Warren finds himself back at square one and growing testy by the minute. Because the mob has a hand in everything, and they’re leaning on everyone.
It goes beyond police corruption or paying everyone off. Even as they run around looking for leads, there are tight lips all around, because everyone’s scared. They have good reason to be. They’re suspicious of authority as much as organized crime. What assurance do they have their lives will not be impinged upon.
One of the movie’s most inspired figures is lawyer Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley), a paunchy, beady-eyed besuited fellow who oozes sliminess from his generally sociable demeanor.
While he’s not an out-and-out criminal type, he also has no morals. One foot is planted in the good citizens league and the other gladly helps the gangsters keep their stranglehold by wheedling out of all signs of trouble. He seems to also glean great delight by watching the government agents stand down, their hands normally tied. He always has a smart response for them.
Still, Frank’s latest mark, Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Carus) — an AWOL husband who is currently courting a showgirl (Kay Medford) — looks like his exorbitant greed might provide a bite. He’s willing to squawk for adequate compensation. Purely a two-bit opportunist. There’s only one way to deal with him…It’s one of the movie’s best set pieces as the informant races off, his daughter, Warren, and his assailants, all sprinting after him through the midday crowds.
For Warren, the job always gets in the way of his lovely marriage, and he and his wife (Nina Foch) especially suffer for it. They barely get any time together, and the rest of the time he’s crammed in a lousy hotel room bickering with his colleagues. Back amid the tranquility of his home life, he resolves to give up the whole business because the safety of his wife seems like too high a price to pay in the pursuit of justice. The visual dichotomy between the two spheres is especially evident due to Burnett Guffey’s characteristically stark photography
His decision could be the unceremonious end to the picture, but we get a bit more — a nighttime visit. It is the obvious entreaty for him to consider the crusade. He’s not one to see evil and run away with his tail between his legs.
None of this is much of a surprise as we cycle through yet another bookkeeper, this time one Sydney Gordon (Leo Penn), who is on the lam with his newlywed wife (Patricia Barry). The question is whether or not they can convince him to talk and if he does agree, can they even protect him?
The last few minutes are worth seeing through to the end specifically because the action falls on the two most compelling characters in the whole story. For the first time, our hero has O’Rourke on the back foot forcing his hand. He really is the crucial piece since, with the sides drawn up between the good guys and bad, he plays like the wild card. The ending is a foregone conclusion, although, on the road, there are several tense confrontations predating the more action-dominated days of Robert Stack’s Untouchables.