Movie: Undercover Girl (1950)

Except in melodramas, women were rarely top billed in features in 1950.  Alexis Smith is the lead of that year’s Undercover Girl, as the title character.  That this is a female-led noir is a reason to seek this out, but there is more of interest here than that.

When we first meet Smith, at the end of another day at the NYC police academy, she is getting picked up by her boyfriend, played by Richard Egan.  Egan’s character is awful, but at least the movie regards him as a condescending prick.  Consider this exchange: “What’s new with the lady cop today? “  “Jujitsu.”  “That oughta come in handy keeping house.”

Then she discovers her dad, a police veteran, has been killed by drug dealers who had him on their payroll.  LA detective Scott Brady, looking uncannily like Ray Liotta (as always), knows those dealers are somehow about to move a large shipment to his turf, and he needs somebody to infiltrate their organization.  Seeking revenge, Smith volunteers.  “They wouldn’t suspect a woman.  They’d let me get closer to them.”

So it is off to floozie training for Smith, which is different from her training up until this point.  There is far less Jujitsu, and far more slinking around in lacey things.  Speaking of which, I don’t know where the movie got its idea of how a “loose woman” would dress in that time, as the first such outfit we see Smith wearing while undercover looks remarkably like a wedding dress.  Is she supposed to be a time travelling prostitute from the Victorian era who has suddenly found herself in mid-century LA?

The character she is developing is supposedly from Chicago, and familiar with organizations there.  As research, she spends a lot of time talking with Gladys George, a washed-up former gangster’s moll.  George is in a hospital, I assume for a detox program.  Bringing a lot to a relatively minor role, the actress seems a bit rough around the edges while also having a certain fragile vulnerability.  She is especially appreciative of the tiny gestures Smith does to help her reclaim some of her dignity.

Having built her persona, Smith is ready to worm her way into the LA crime hierarchy.  I found it interesting we see her start at the periphery of that structure, framing the destitute, alcoholic girlfriend of a low-level thug.  That thug is played by Royal Dano, in his first screen appearance.  Dano is then used to get her an appointment with a crooked doctor (Edmon Ryan) who heads the west coast narcotics operation.

Ryan’s weakness is the ladies, though Smith finds him hard to win over.  There is one aspect of their conversation that lingers in my mind. I suspect she insinuated she (well, her fictitious persona) and George were occasional lovers.  I don’t know how else to read such lines as “For one thing, she fancied me.  Kept me in the background all the time.”

Ryan has a secret he discloses to Smith, and she seems to be a bit sympathetic towards him because of it.  He has a son secreted away at a private school, and he has made an effort to conceal his existence from his associates.  It isn’t said exactly what brought on Ryan’s fall from grace, but he has hope for his son “to be the doctor [he] always wanted to be.”

He is wise to keep this information from the head of the national operation, played by Gerald Mohr.  This boss thoroughly grills Smith about her story while they are in the stands at a jai alai game.  I am surprised that game was ever a thing and I wonder if it still is.  According to Mohr, it is the most dangerous game in the world, which seemed unlikely to me.  That is, unless they are still ritually sacrificing the losers at the end of a match, like they did in its earliest years. 

Even more interesting than Mohr are Ryan’s underlings in his office, a motley group that may pose as much of a threat to him as his boss.  In addition to the scheming Dano, there’s a sadistic male nurse who is always smiling.  I used to think it is always noble to take pleasure in one’s work, but I think I have found an exception.

Undercover Girl is a solid film noir, though little in it distinguishes it from similar fare.  What is memorable about it is having a female lead in Smith.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel it is of two minds about her character, and the idea of women being police officers in general.  I present as my closing argument the final exchange between Brady and Smith: “Go ahead and cry it out.”  “Cops don’t cry.”  “Women do.”

Dir: Joseph Pevney

Starring Alexis Smith, Scott Brady, Edmon Ryan

Watched as part of Kino Lorber’s blu-ray box set Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XIV