Wed 18 Jan 2017
UNDERTOW. Universal International, 1949. Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett. Director: William Castle
Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect from Undertow, but having just watched this lesser-known crime film I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it for those who haven’t yet had the occasion to see it. Directed by William Castle, who is better known these days for his work in the schlock horror genre, Undertow is very much in line with the late 1940s “film noir” aesthetic. Set primarily in the urban jungle of Chicago, the movie has gambling, a femme fatale, betrayal, coincidence, a protagonist framed for a crime he didn’t commit, a renegade cop working to clear an innocent man’s name. You get the picture.
The plot. Without giving too much away, here are the basics: Tony Reagan (Scott Brady) is an ex-GI who used to work for Big Jim, a Chicago mob boss. But Reagan now wants to go straight and work in the legitimate real estate business in Nevada.
Before he can do that, though, he needs to settle matters with Big Jim and, more importantly, with his fiancée who just happens to be Big Jim’s niece. Before he can do so, Big Jim ends up murdered, and Tony, who is framed for reasons that become clearer over time, is the police department’s primary suspect.
Although it’s not a classic, Undertow perfectly captures the same sense of post-war urban paranoia and social isolation as do other similar films noir and programmers released in the late 1940s. There’s that creeping sense that, although Tony Reagan has made some bad life choices, what has happened to him could happen to any one of us. This Kafkaesque dread is best exemplified by a stunningly effective scene in which Reagan darts around a concrete and steel Chicago “L” station in the desperate hope that he can outrun the cops who are hot on his trail.