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The semi-documentary crime story The Undercover Man (1949) was the last of several noteworthy film noirs that the stylish director Joseph H. Lewis would craft during his tenure with Columbia Pictures' "B" unit. Taking its narrative cue from the federal government's ultimate success after countless tries to bring Al Capone to heel, the well-crafted and moody tale gave filmgoers a compelling look at the challenges presented to Treasury Department cops.
The scenario finds T-Men Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) and George Pappas (James Whitmore) charged with getting the goods on a notorious crimelord (Ralph Volkie) solely referred to as "the Big Fellow." The feds receive a tip from informant Manny Zanger (Rob Osterloh) that the Big Fellow is avoiding $3 million in tax liabilities; however, Zanger turns up murdered before the evidence is delivered. Warren then takes the fight to the syndicate by subpoenaing the ledgers of the Big Fellow's low-level associates, and hauling in all their bookkeepers to compare handwriting.
The plan gets rebuffed, however, once slick mob attorney Edward O'Rourke (Barry Kelley) engineers the accountants' immediate release. Warren is back at Square One until an embittered local cop tips him to Salvatore Rocco (Anthony Caruso), a mob accountant whom he had once unsuccessfully tried to book. In tracking Rocco down, Frank discovers that his handwriting matches various critical mob deposit slips, and ultimately corners the accountant with a deal for immunity and protection in exchange for his testimony.
Rocco's decision to cooperate merely buys him a bullet. Afterwards, Frank receives a punking from the Big Fellow's hoods, and veiled threats from O'Rourke regarding the safety of his wife Judith (Nina Foch), who the T-man once believed to be safely ensconced at her parents' farm. Frank is on the precipice of turning in his badge when help--and incentive to bring the Big Fellow down--comes from unexpected corners.
Lewis' impressive string of noirs started with My Name Is Julia Ross (1945, also starring Foch) and So Dark the Night (1946) and continued with the genre classics Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955). The filmmaker recalled Ford's performance fondly for Peter Bogdanovich's 1997 director interview omnibus Who The Devil Made It (Knopf).
Of the scene where Frank tells Judith that he's ready to hang it up for her protection, and which was captured with a three-camera setup, Lewis stated, "This is a man crying, and it's wonderful to see a man cry--it's something rare and beautiful. I knew I could never capture this if we shot a portion of it on somebody else and then went over and over and over. I shot the rehearsal...I did not tell them how to do it. I did not tell them what I wanted. Again, this is where the talent of the actor and the actress came to me and gave me something brilliant that I could never explain to them. I sat back and I wept."
Lewis also stated to Bogdanovich that he severed his ties with Columbia over the claim to final cut made by Robert Rossen, the film's producer and co-scripter. "Immediately after I finished shooting, Bob called Harry Cohn and said, 'I'm finished with Joe Lewis, so you can knock him off salary'--or whatever terms were used. When I heard this I demanded that I be given an opportunity to edit the film and Bob said, 'Do anything you want and I'll change it my way. It's my film.'...He was wonderful to me during shooting, but the moment it was through--boom! Take it away from you. So I said, the hell with this, I'll leave. And I did. Harry Cohn had just given me a straight seven-year contract. And I left. I wouldn't stay."
Producer: Robert Rossen
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Screenplay: Jack Rubin, Sydney Boehm; Malvin Wald (additional dialogue); Frank J. Wilson (article "Undercover Man: He Trapped Capone")
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Glenn Ford (Frank Warren), Nina Foch (Judith Warren), James Whitmore (George Pappas), Barry Kelley (Edward O'Rourke), David Wolfe (Stanley Weinburg), Frank Tweddell (Insp. Herzog), Howard St. John (Joseph S. Horan), John Hamilton(Police Sergeant Shannon), Leo Penn (Sidney Gordon), Joan Lazer (Rosa Rocco), Esther Minciotti (Maria Rocco), Angela Clarke (Theresa Rocco), Anthony Caruso (Salvatore Rocco),Robert Osterloh (Manny Zanger), Kay Medford (Gladys LaVerne)
by Jay S. Steinberg