This well-made, absorbing film is basically an early telling of the UNTOUCHABLES story, as federal Treasury agents work to bring in "the Big Fellow" on charges of tax evasion. The agents include Frank Warren (Glenn Ford) and George Pappas (James Whitmore, in his film debut). The film isn't a classic, but it's a solid effort worth seeing, and it's particularly interesting to see an early telling of a familiar crime tale.
The story is told in a style approaching "docu-noir," although the only narration provided is in the film's opening scene. (Actor John Ireland does the voiceover work.) As is often the case in docu-noir films, the movie spends a fair amount of time on forensic work, in this case depicting the analysis done by a handwriting expert.
The movie shows the long months of painstaking footwork and dead ends faced by the Treasury agents, as well as the problems they deal with in making their case when the mob keeps bumping off witnesses. The film also depicts the personal toll on agents, particularly when the mob seems to threaten Frank's wife (Nina Foch).
Ford seems to often play fairly morose characters, and Frank Warren is no exception. Frank is dedicated to his job but pained at being separated from his wife for lengthy periods of time, and an implied threat to her life is almost the straw that breaks the camel's back. Foch is charming as his supportive wife Judy.
Whitmore, who had appeared in the Broadway production of COMMAND DECISION in 1947, is very much at home on the screen despite this being his very first movie; rather remarkably, he was nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar for his second film, BATTLEGROUND, released the same year.
Sean Penn's father, Leo Penn, plays one of the key witnesses who manages to avoid being killed and helps put "the Big Fellow" behind bars. (Columbia apparently didn't want to use Al Capone's name for legal reasons.) There are some moments where the senior Penn looks quite a bit like his son. He's seen between Whitmore and Ford in the photo to the left; Penn's wife, seen here at the left, is played by Patricia Barry, then known as Patricia White.
Additional members of the supporting cast include Barry Kelley (effective as the mob attorney), David Wolfe, Frank Tweddell, Howard St. John, Angela Clarke, Esther Minciotti, John F. Hamilton, and Kay Medford.
THE UNDERCOVER MAN was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who also directed Foch in the minor classic MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (1945). According to TCM's Robert Osborne, Lewis filmed the most emotional scenes with a three-camera setup so that he could capture the actors reacting to one another as the scenes unfolded; one scene, where Frank is provided with critical information by the family of a murdered mob accountant (Anthony Caruso), was actually rehearsal footage that Lewis used in the final film.
The black and white photography was by Burnett Guffey, who also filmed the Ford film noir FRAMED (1947). The Columbia Classics blog posted a brief article on Guffey's work in April 2010.
THE UNDERCOVER MAN is not available on DVD or VHS. It's been shown on Turner Classic Movies.
Update: Thanks to Colin for mentioning in the comments that this film is out on a Region 2 DVD.
January 2013 Update: THE UNDERCOVER MAN will be out on DVD as part of the TCM Vault Collection in March 2013.