Looking like a dark, demented Dagwood Bumstead, actor Dan Duryea was second only to Fred MacMurray when it came to playing total shit heels in various films noir of the '40s and '50s. Case in point, THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950), in which he plays a conniving newspaper reporter who is only out for himself, willing to sell a sensationalistic murder story to the highest bidder to further his own career and reputation. As callous and callow Mike Reese, Duryea gives a performance that prefigures and anticipates a similar turn by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder's brilliant ACE IN THE HOLE (1951).
At the start of the film, a story written by Reese results in the death of a mobster and the wounding of district attorney Ralph Munsey (Michael O'Shea). Reese loses his job and no other newspaper in the city will have him. He finally finds a chance with the small-town Lakewood Sentinel, run by Catherine Harris (Gale Storm) and George "Parky" Parker (Harry Shannon). Using $5,000 from gangster Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva), Reese buys into the newspaper just as a major murder case breaks.
The daughter-in-law of newspaper tycoon E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered and an investigation is launched. Turns out her weasel of a husband, Clark (Gar Moore), is the killer, a fact that he immediately confesses to his father. But there's no way the scion of a newspaper empire is going to be executed for the crime, so the two conspire to frame Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), the woman's maid, for the killing.
Reese, smelling a hot story, starts selling exclusive story rights to various newspapers and wire services. He even arranges to surrender the innocent Molly to D.A. Munsey in order to collect the reward money. She's arrested but no reward is forthcoming, leading Reese to try another approach to generate headlines and sell stories. He hits upon a defense committee for the young black woman and begins to play on the sympathies of the community. Money is pouring in and soon, the story of innocent young Molly becomes a cause celebre across the country.
But regardless of her innocence, she's going to be found guilty and sentenced to die unless something drastic happens. Reese eventually realizes his actions are going to send an innocent woman to her death and he begins to try and get the D.A. to listen to the truth. Meanwhile, the Stantons, father and guilty son, have gone to mobster Durham for help in getting rid of Reese once and for all. Everything comes to a brutal climax in the third act with Reese ultimately doing the right thing and finding a measure of redemption for his selfish behavior.
THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a nicely mounted little B-movie courtesy of screenwriter Henry Blankfort and director Cy Endfield. The lush black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez, adds tremendous amounts of mood and atmosphere. Duryea owns the picture from start to finish, with Reese going through a character arc from heel to hero while Da Silva makes an excellent bad guy. While not a major noir, THE UNDERWORLD STORY is a good, tight, well constructed film that fans of the genre will enjoy. Recommended.