'Nobody helps me -- I help them!' boasts open-handed gangster Bull Weed, handing over what will prove to be the best investment in his high-spending career: a thousand dollars that will put the literate 'Rolls Royce' of vagrants back on his feet. Living it up in the Twenties with the aid of cool but smouldering moll Feathers, the Bull lords it over the law and his rivals alike -- specifically big Buck Mulligan, whose floral-tributes business echoes that of a certain real-life Chicago gangster... Yet Feathers, prize possession and object of envy, proves his weak point; and in the end, Bull Weed will indeed come to need help from others, and more than he has ever needed it before. But can Rolls Royce and Feathers still give it to him? And will the Bull accept? Written by
Of the three silent classics made by Josef von Sternberg in the 1920s, "The Last Command" and "The Docks of New York" were declared part of the US National Film Registry, but according to my personal taste and appreciation of film art, the obvious choice for this distinction should have been "Underworld". Sternberg would later meet Marlene Dietrich for the classic early sound film "The Blue Angel" and become the creator of the "Marlene myth"; but in "Underworld" there are already hints of mastery of composition and framing, without the tendency to exotica through the eyes of Hollywood displayed in the Dietrich films ("Morocco", "Blonde Venus", "Shanghai Express", for example), although a couple of them are good. "Underworld" is the fascinating story of the rise, decadence and fall of a criminal (George Bancroft) in luscious black & white: for those who have seen Howard Hawks' "Scarface" (1932), the plot may seem familiar, because both films are based on a story by Ben Hecht, who won one of the first Oscars when there was an Academy Award for "Best Story", for his tale of "Underworld". Closer to Expressionism than Hawks' film, and away from the strident first experimentations with sound, "Underworld" is an elegant motion picture, with seductive silhouettes and aural suggestions, to evoke the climate of violence that determines the story. A must-see film.
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