January 18, 2020
Underworld – US, 1927
Josef von Sternberg’s cinematic career began with the film Underworld, a short, gritty look at the criminal world of the late 1920’s. This is a world that owed much of its existence to the colossal mistake that was Prohibition and which made celebrities out of ruthless gangsters such as Al Capone, which one Hollywood studio even entertained making a film with. (According to legend, they would have, too, had someone on the set that day not made a rather flippant remark about leaving his guns at the door.) Those gangsters, it was believed, were standing up to an oppressive government hell bent on imposing its outdated morals on a society whose only crime was that they had a thirst for alcohol, and so, it is not surprising to see the lead character in Underworld, Bull Weed (George Bancroft), portrayed in a rather pleasant light. Sure, he’s got anger issues and a slight tendency toward homicide, but other than that, he’s the kind of guy you’d have the time of your life with were you to share a booth with him at a bar or restaurant.
In fact, for much of the film, we get a pretty sanitized picture of Bull. He seems to commit robberies on his own, never appears to harm anyone in the process, and is even such a romantic fellow that he robs a jewelry store just so that he can get his hands on a necklace that his girlfriend formed in instant attachment with. I mean, if that isn’t love, what is? We also get a few scenes that reminded me of the dual nature of many of James Cagney’s gangsters. They were surely violent, but on any given day, they could have a heart of gold. In one scene which I seem to recall first seeing in a later Cagney film, Bull comes across a teenager trying to steal an apple from a fruit cart. Bull stops him cold and gives him a stern lecture on the evils of taking what isn’t yours. Then he smiles and eats the apple himself, completely aware of the contradiction. In another scene, his actions bring to mind a certain hero from Sherwood Forest, and then there’s his romantic side. When walking with his girlfriend, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), he remembers that a gentleman always walks on the side of the sidewalk closest to the traffic. At this point in the film, you’d be forgiven for thinking, What a swell guy!
Like von Sternberg does in later films with his muse Marlene Dietrich, here he creates a new and foreboding world down to the last detail. From the dark indistinct side streets to the well lit apartment he shares with Feathers, from the frequent shadows that loom large over figures in the foreground to the way von Sternberg immediately makes the audience aware of Feathers’s unique qualities and remarkable form, every detail contributes to the creation of a world in which love and brotherhood exist alongside rage and chaos. The film’s chief villain is Buck Mulligan, owner of a flower shop by day and ruthless gang leader by night, and the character provides both a contrast and a mirror to Bull. Early one, his quick temper and instant fury is juxtaposed with Bull’s calm, mocking mannerisms, and we can be forgiven for initially seeing them as polar opposites.
Interestingly, much of the film’s drama comes not from the rivalry between Bull and Buck, but from that of Bull and a former lawyer/current drunk nicknamed Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). In an early scene, a variation of which was repeated in the great Rio Bravo, Buck entices Rolls with a ten dollar bill, only to throw it in a spit bowl. His reaction is perfect. Even though he could surely use the money, he just picks up his broom and resumes sweeping the floor. Dignity supersedes financial need. The action perfectly establishes his character, and it provides the impetus for Feathers’s first inquisitive look. Sure, Bull would have done something similar, but he is in a much better financial position. Bull does it out of principle, and that means just a little bit more to her. And thus the flirtation begins.
I wish the film had spent more time developing the connection between Feathers and Rolls Royce. It seemed to me that more was needed that a scene in which she exposes her shoulder and he grins like a freshman seeing flesh for the first time, but in truth movies have rarely been good at establishing bonds that go beyond mutual physical attraction. Perhaps this is why ones that do, such as Before Sunrise, It Happened One Night, and Casablanca, resonate as much as they do. We appreciate a film that takes the time to make a relationship understandable. We root for these couples; we simply tolerate the rest. Alas, the romance in Underworld is a case of the latter, and the film is marginally weaker as a result.
Still, the film impresses and resonates, and its impact on the genre is plain to see. In the film, we see the beginnings of Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with gangsters, the need to make them both personally likeable and professionally despicable. One need look no further than The Sopranos for proof that that dilemma continues to dominate the gangster genre, and while Underworld does not end with the protagonist having been exposed as a failure for not having preserved his morals or protected his family from the hazards of his career choice, it does end in a way that will remind viewers of other films from Hollywood’s early years, ones in which a gangster is never truly without honorable attributes. He just has to find something more valuable than his own life. Once Underground get going, there’s little doubt just what that will be, but what a ride getting there, and what incredible performances. Underground is the kind of film that you marvel at, knowing full well that you are witnessing the arrival of a true master of cinema. (on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s box set 3 Silent Classics By Josef von Sternberg, now thankfully back in print)
3 and a half stars
*Underworld is a silent film.
*Writer Ben Hecht won an Oscar for his screenplay at the first Academy Awards.