RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Nina Foch

The Undercover Man (March 21, 1949)

The Undercover Man
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Columbia Pictures

The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.

Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.

Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.

Whitmore and Ford

Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.

The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.

But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.

Advertisements

Johnny O’Clock (Jan. 23, 1947)

Robert Rossen’s Johnny O’Clock — yes, it’s really about a man named “Johnny O’Clock” — isn’t as good as some of Rossen’s later films, like The Hustler (1961), but it’s a great start. Rossen was a prolific writer of screenplays, but Johnny O’Clock was his first time in the director’s chair.

The improbably named protagonist is played with a light touch by former crooner Dick Powell. Johnny is a partner in a New York gambling syndicate run by an oily, overweight gangster named Pete Marchettis (Thomas Gomez).

Marchettis is married to a beautiful sloppy drunk named Nelle (Ellen Drew) who’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, but who loves the dough too much to ever leave Marchettis. Powell’s scenes with Gomez and Drew are some of the best of the picture, as the boozy moll falls all over Johnny in front of Marchettis and his heavy-hitters, seemingly oblivious to her husband’s jealousy. At the same time, Marchettis seems desperate for approval from both Johnny and his wife. In one scene, he goes on and on about the portrait he had a Mexican boy paint of him. When he shows it to Johnny and asks him if he likes it, Johnny simply responds, “It looks like you.”

There’s a police inspector named Koch (Lee J. Cobb) who’s hounding Johnny O’Clock, lurking in the lobby of the hotel where he lives and constantly trying to catch him riding dirty. Johnny’s association with corrupt cop Chuck Blayden (Jim Bannon) rubs the honest Inspector Koch the wrong way, especially since Blayden’s been on the winning end of more than one shootout with Marchettis’s rivals. Koch suspects that Marchettis and Johnny are using Blayden to do their dirty work under the guise of “justifiable homicide.”

When a pretty hat-check girl who works at Johnny O’Clock’s casino goes missing, things heat up. The girl, Harriet Hobson (Nina Foch), was dating Chuck Blayden, and when her body is found in her gas-filled apartment — an apparent suicide — Koch smells foul play. As soon as Harriet’s sister, Nancy Hobson (Evelyn Keyes), arrives in New York to claim her sister’s body, cracks begin to appear in Johnny O’Clock’s carefree exterior. He and Nancy are attracted to each other, but are from different worlds. She makes him want to cash out and run away with her, but if you’ve ever seen a gangster movie, you know that cashing out always comes at a price.

Johnny O’Clock is the third of many noirs to star Powell after he shed his image as a boyish Depression-era crooner and appeared as Philip Marlowe in Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (1944). Johnny O’Clock gives Powell a chance to craft a more three-dimensional character than he had a chance to in either Murder, My Sweet or Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), and he’s mostly successful, although he didn’t seem fully up to the challenge of some of the more emotional moments in the film’s climax. (Powell was a breezy and charming actor who could project toughness and nastiness when he had to, but raw, naked emotion wasn’t one of the tools in his actor’s toolbox.)

While the story’s twists and turns are sometimes hard to follow, the actors are all good, and enjoyable to watch. Lee J. Cobb’s most famous role is probably as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist (1973), so it was fun to see him in a similar role, more than 25 years earlier.

Writer-director Rossen has a fuller vision of his criminal demi-monde that we see in most ’40s noirs, and his characters are convincing within its context. I really liked Johnny O’Clock, and I’d love to see proper DVD releases of more of Dick Powell’s film noirs in the future. I had to watch this one on a janky DVD-R recorded off of television.