The Undercover Man (1949): Starring Glenn Ford

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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As is, Joseph H. Lewis’s picture plays as more of an updated (or out of date) riff on the Untouchables and the Capone story.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.

3/5 Stars

Review: An American in Paris (1951): Gene Kelly’s Love Letter to France

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It’s no secret that Gene Kelly had a deep abiding affection for France. He was fluent in the language also becoming the first American ever bestowed the honor of arranging a show for the Paris Opera. He would be honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur in 1960 and, of course, made a memorable appearance in Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

Without deep knowledge of his life, I cannot attest to whether or not this affection has roots in An American in Paris or sprouted earlier. But watching the film it’s easy to surmise it captures the unrealized dreams of Kelly’s heart. No, he was never a painter named Jerry Mulligan, but in his lifetime, he was an artist.

When we first hear his instantly placeable voice, providing genial narration, it’s not difficult to believe. Images of Parisian romantce are brought to the screen, and he recounts how he, Jerry Mulligan, went from being a G.I. to a struggling painter in love with France. He’s not the only one, as his pianist friend (Oscar Levant) is in much the same boat, though a little less jovial.

There’s an incessantly bouncy theme playing intermittently at any time our protagonist walks down an avenue with a spring in his step. Does it get a bit tiresome? Emphatically so. Still, we are reminded that Kelly is constantly on the move like a giddy schoolboy.

However, it’s a woman named Milo (as in Venus duh) who spots his work out on the street and takes an immediate liking in it. He’s not quite buying what she’s selling. First of all, no one’s ever given him a break before and secondly, she proceeds to invite him to a party that winds up being a very cozy affair: just the two of them. It’s not the type of patronage Jerry was hoping for, but her money is real enough, and he needs it.

And yet in this Parisian backlot as evoked by director Vincent Minnelli, it’s easy to envy such a carefree life full of benevolent locals, lazy cafes, and a plethora of song and dance to brighten any day. If hardship is spoken of, it’s very rarely seen in the flesh. People speak flippantly of their lack of funds or food because they always seem to get by. There’s an agreeableness to the facade.

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Gene Kelly with the kiddos is priceless. He becomes their impromptu English teacher playing a game of “Repeat After Me,” which is in the toolkit of anyone who has ever taught a language. His pupils are eager and so what’s next but introduce an American song: “I Got…Rhythm.” Though the Gershwin tune wasn’t born in An American in Paris, it became fully rejuvenated in the hands of Kelly — arguably reaching a new apex.

He makes it more than a song — a malleable plaything for he and the kids to have a bit of fun with — goofing off and prancing about like cowboys and soldiers, then swirling like airplanes for good measure. The most important artistic movement in the picture might be its finale, but the most delightful one is found right here. Because we feel our own childhood antics rushing back.

As his relationship progresses with Milo (Nina Foch), it becomes more complicated since he’s not about to be a live-in companion even as the prevailing need for money remains in the front of his mind. One evening, in particular, he spies the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen (Leslie Caron), an enchanting vision, and immediately drums up some pretense to dance with her. He comes off too strong and alienates her in the process. Not to mention the lady he came with.

One might gather that in the real world Mulligan would be rather problematic and yet Kelly’s characters never seem to exist in the real world, and so his romantic diversions are easy to dismiss. That irascible Kelly charm comes in handy.

Meanwhile, we have the stunning paradox of Leslie Caron, that talented waif-like creature with the cherub face. Effervescently youthful in one moment and yet composed with an undoubted maturity about her even as Kelly comes off as the boyish suitor. She is initially showcased in a sequence meant to describe the contours of her personality as a ballerina, and each moment fittingly paints her in contradictory shades and subjects. She is all things and then none of them.

The most formative number, in terms of the blossoming of their love, is the Gershwin classic “Our Love is Here to Stay” danced gracefully at the water’s edge of the Seine, soaked in soft lamplight. But alas, it was not meant to be. There are too many obstacles in the way, and Mulligan fades into his fantasies — Kelly’s pride and joy — a 17-minute extravaganza.

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Minnelli’s roving camera is in tandem with Kelly’s choreography. An apt illustration of how much Kelly’s work differs decidely from Fred Astaire. Ballet takes precedent in his work as much as inflections of jazz, and he was not averse to such cross-pollination as it were.

The sets are brimming with constant kinetic energy, splashes of color, and elaborate costuming with tones inspired by French masters. It devolves into a dazzling cornucopia carousel of dance, freely flowing against Gershwin’s title composition. All efforts are to elicit the French landscape with cafes, fountains, and chambers full of mirrors.

But it’s not simply a substantial musical routine dashed off or cut together from various interludes. Or if it is, then we can concede there is a certain purpose to its ebb and flow, like a dream existing in some ethereal world both of love and bittersweet uncertainty.

Kelly’s greatest gift to us as an audience is probably putting some form of physical expression to very human emotions, and he did it in a way that feels genuine and to a small degree, attainable for all of us. The love story onscreen is a fairy tale, but he is just the man capable of suspending our disbelief and charming us into fully enjoying the experience.

Perhaps he tries too hard in An American in Paris. How can you not like him? Perhaps Minnelli’s camera dances too much and Kelly and Caron, not enough. I’m not sure. But there are specific instances exceeding the constraints of straightforward narrative fluff. When it enters into the momentarily euphoric, mirthful, or even the deeply regretful. Those emotions stay with me indelibly and this is what the most earnest, most evocative movies are capable of at their best.

4/5 Stars

Executive Suite (1954)

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Executive Suite is a story of the high rise corporate jungle where on a daily basis it’s a Darwinian experiment not only pitting company against company but, on a microscale, man against man. After all, in the most cynical sense, that’s what free market capitalism is.

Top to bottom, the film boasts rich reservoirs of talent from sure-handed director Robert Wise and screenwriting newcomer Ernest Lehman who would soon be a hot commodity in the industry thanks to the likes of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and North by Northwest (1959).

It also proves to be an All-Star cast if there ever was one,  stacked with at least 10 easily recognizable names rounding out a lineup which could go toe-to-toe with any other drama of the decade on talent alone. Such a bevy of stars hearkens back to the golden years of MGM in the 1930s before television was ever a thing and they had as many stars as there were stars in the sky.

Today Executive Suite admittedly doesn’t get much coverage as a drama because, in spite of its vast ensemble, it’s not necessarily grandiose or vibrant, even compared to later Wise successes like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). However, this in no way should downplay its striking qualities and there are some compelling ones.

Out of all the stylistic choices, one of the most noticeable ones and, subsequently, unusual decisions for the era is the absence of any form of traditional musical scoring. In this regard, we could say the scenes are not manipulated by any amount of sonorousness. What we see is making some claim at authenticity with street noise in lieu of diegetic sound and Chet Huntley introducing our narrative set in the upper echelons of a skyscraper.

Though a bit gimmicky by today’s standards, Wise does immediately catch our eyes with an extended POV shot taking on the perspective of an unseen big wig name Bulliard, the formidable head of Tredway Furniture Co. He’s coming back to town and has slated a meeting for that same evening, upon his return. Except something highly unsuspected happens. One might blame the taxing strain of his work but he winds up dropping dead in the street. Some scrounger conveniently picks up his discarded wallet, making any form of identification more difficult for the police.

The company is thrown into an uproar following his sudden and untimely death, especially because there is no true contingency plan as the deceased had no single, hand-picked second-in-command.

Nina Foch is the secretary managing a vast network of information, funneling down to all the executive suite. She is the runner between offices and boardrooms, relaying the information to all the necessary contacts as Bulliard’s right-hand assistant.

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They gather for their impromptu meeting. There’s Frederick Y. Alderson (Walter Pidgeon), a career man who has been by the side of his friend Mr. Bulliard for many, many years now. Loren Shaw (Frederic March) is a relatively new addition to the company but as chief controller and a shrewd numbers man; he’s been able to up the annual earnings at Tredway as of late.

J. Walter Dudley (Paul Douglas) is the charismatic head of sales who could talk anyone into buying just about anything. He’s that good. Of course, his dirty little secret is he’s been embroiled in an affair with his secretary (Shelley Winters).

The ambitious young family man Don Walling (William Holden) holds a more hands-on position in the factory, overseeing design and development while the old warhorse, Mr. Grimm (Dean Jagger), is in charge of manufacturing. However, with their product going down in quality to cut expenses, he’s got an idea to retire. He holds no pride in his work anymore.

Between all these men and the opportunistic snake-in-the-grass, George Caswell (Louis Calhern), we have the gathering of the top brass and quality acting talent. It’s a bountiful proposition getting all these people in a room together. And when the news breaks it’s essentially an exhibition of “who died and made you king” as the factions scramble into action, assembling to vie for some form of supremacy.

Shaw is the first man spurred into action in the wake of Bulliard’s death because though Alderson holds private aspirations, he resigns himself to acquiescence. But that doesn’t mean they’re going down without a fight. Walling plays the number games late at night trying to figure where everyone stands. He confides in his wife (June Allyson) and plays catch with his son but his work-life balance is suffering. His wife worries the instability will bury him professionally.

It’s true the names are continually interchanging thanks to dirty politics and a plethora of finagling, leveraging, and leaning to line everything up for the impending nominations session to be undertaken on a closed ballot.

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In a man’s world, it’s fitting that Barbara Stanwyck would be the only woman with any sway on the meeting of the mind’s thanks to her stock holdings in her father’s company, which Bulliard helped appreciate. She doesn’t have much screentime but her very financial capital makes her crucial to the picture as an unpredictable swing vote. Her wild card and some late arrivals obscure the resolution to the last possible instant in thrilling fashion.

It’s true Henry Fonda was up for a part in the movie and that inkling gives me a rather obvious realization. Executive Suite does play like a bigger, loftier version of 12 Angry Men (1957). Especially in its most crucial minutes. Far be it from me to say people sitting around a boardroom table cannot be interesting because once more I was invested in what decision was arrived upon and I knew it took every one of those actors around that table to make it stick.

Someone has to rise to the occasion and that person is William Holden, positioned as the initially hesitant one, dismissed as still inexperienced, and yet he has a vision the others lack. He’s not a tired old man. He’s not driven solely by profits or bitter over past affronts.

He’s looking beyond to new territory and a future where the company can prosper not simply because of penny-pinching but an actual pride in the quality of the product they can offer their customers. If you wanted to make a sweeping statement, you could say he, even momentarily, redeems the American Dream, a symbol of the American everyman with his white picket fence, beautiful wife, and high ideals. That is until the next board meeting happens. But I would like to think he is capable as a leader for change. It’s true we need people like him in this world of ours.

4/5 Stars