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Lewis' G-Man noir suffers from Glenn Ford's suffering
Before bedecking the noir cycle with two of its gems - Gun Crazy and The Big Combo - Joseph H. Lewis exercised his talents on The Undercover Man. Scant surprise that it falls short of those two movies, the first of which boasted Peggy Cummins as Annie Laurie Starr and the second John Alton as director of photography. While the dependably gifted Burnett Guffey pinch-hits for Alton, the absence of any major female role makes a Cummins unnecessary (though still missed). So there's no countervailing axis to balance out the star, Glenn Ford.
While Ford contributed yeoman's work in some indispensable titles, from Gilda to The Big Heat and Human Desire, he always stood at odds to the sardonic cool that was the hallmark of male leads in the cycle. In picture after picture, he unpacked the same old angst and wore it like a hair shirt. When his reasons were up there on the screen - a torch for Rita Hayworth, a blood-lust for revenge - he brought an uncommon intensity to roles that a flippant approach would have watered down.
But in The Undercover Man he turns a glorified civil-service job into the stuff of agony. He's an undercover government agent; his worn-down wife, Nina Foch, joins him occasionally on his assignments but for the most part stays at home near Washington, D.C. where she's come to accept his extended absences with a long face. Ford and his partner James Whitmore find their frequently flipped Treasury credentials carry little weight in big-shouldered Chicago, where the syndicate's ruthlessness strikes witnesses blind and dumb even when victims are gunned down in broad daylight. And the mob's lavishly remunerated mouthpiece, Barry Kelley, impudently taunts Ford for his futile crusade against the never seen Big Fellow (as he's affectionately known around town). But in the dogged tradition of the Feds in movies like The House on 92nd Street and T-Men, Ford keeps slogging away until he finds a chink in the silent armor....
The Undercover Man starts out in the detail-cluttered, reverential way of so many of these para-patriotic films, but about halfway through Lewis finds his stride and eschews hagiography for moviemaking. A tense and violent sequence among the street stalls of Chicago's Italian neighborhood, where a turncoat gangster is chased and killed in front of his little daughter, delivers a welcome jolt after all the handwriting experts and accountants' ledgers. But the movie always slinks back to Ford, suffering valiantly - he's such an irresistible target it's no wonder Kelley can't help needling him. And it's Kelley's sly, smug performance that lends The Undercover Man the subversive grit that, in the absence of Cummins (or any of her sisters), it sorely needs.
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