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Books and essays about the gangster genre often cite Josef Von
Sternberg's Underworld as an early, influential milestone, but
unfortunately it's not easy to track down in any home-viewable format.
Recently I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater, accompanied
by live music in a packed house of enthused buffs. Whenever possible,
this is the way to see a silent movie! The combination of a good score
and the response of a simpatico crowd can really bring these works to
life. And while there are some dramas of the '20s that show their age
and provoke giggles at the wrong moments, this one is not in that
category. Underworld holds up, and offers an unlikely yet oddly
credible romantic triangle set in a milieu of violent crime. Like all
of Von Sternberg's work it's exquisitely well photographed, and like
many late silent films takes full advantage of a range of dynamic
devices, including a "whip-pan" from face to face in one early scene
and a startlingly fast montage of close-ups in another. But what makes
this movie click isn't flashy cinematography or editing, it's the
chemistry between a trio of top-drawer players working at full steam.
The story is built around three personalities: Bull Weed, played by George Bancroft, "Feathers," played by Evelyn Brent, and "Rolls Royce," played by Clive Brook. Bancroft is unforgettable as Bull, an outlaw of the old school who robs banks and jewelry stores single-handed. The character is, in some respects, the model for gangland kingpins played in later years by Jimmy Cagney and Paul Muni, and yet in a sense he's not a "gangster" at all, for he works solo and has only a handful of allies who show up at key moments and then vanish. Bull doesn't travel with bodyguards or hang out with the boys; despite his natty suits and urban lifestyle he suggests a Western bad man who rides alone. In the early scenes when he's at the top of his game Bull is boisterous, punctuating every conversation with gusts of hearty laughter, but as his situation darkens the laughter vanishes and the guy suddenly resembles an actual bull in an arena, grim and beady-eyed, still physically powerful but cornered and bewildered over how it could have happened. It's easy to see why this performance made George Bancroft so popular at the time: he's a larger-than-life actor with one of those homely/attractive faces, along the lines of an Edward G. Robinson or a Wallace Beery, not handsome but decidedly charismatic.
The beautiful Evelyn Brent is Bull's girlfriend Feathers, so called because of her feathery outfits. Although her character is not as fully delineated as Bancroft's Brent manages to convey a great deal of information with her fascinating eyes. It's clear that Feathers is a lot more intelligent than she lets on. She stays with Bull out of loyalty and gratitude but is well aware of his limitations, and increasingly unhappy about her own dependent status as his "moll." When an opportunity arises to run away with a more attractive and substantial guy she is immediately tempted, even if it means toying with the idea of betraying Bull to the cops, but she's also decent enough to recognize her obligation to him. Bull, after all, risks everything as a direct result of defending her honor when she's attacked. Feathers, despite her froufrou outfits and a nickname more suitable to a bimbo, is smart, sensitive, and surprisingly ethical for someone in her position.
Bancroft and Brent are terrific, but for my money the most memorable performance in Underworld is delivered by Clive Brook. Before this I'd seen Brook in several other films (including Von Sternberg's Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich), most often playing noble, stiff-upper-lip Englishmen, handsome and respectable but just a bit dull. Here, Brook is a revelation. In the opening scenes he's so decrepit he's not even recognizable, playing against type as a washed-up bum, unshaven and bleary-eyed. We learn that Brook's character is an attorney who went crooked and eventually became an alcoholic, but we aren't told much more. However, like Brent, the actor tells us everything we need to know that isn't directly stated in the text. His transformation begins when Bull Weed takes a liking to him, nicknames him "Rolls Royce" and makes him, in effect, his lieutenant. Much of what happens after that point concerns the growing tension between the three characters as an unavoidable attraction develops between Feathers and Rolls Royce, although they fight temptation and struggle to remain loyal to their boss. The scenes between the trio really heat up as the sexual tension between Feathers and Rolls Royce deepens.
Underworld isn't as flamboyantly violent as some of the famous crime flicks of the '30s and '40s, but there are a number of stylistic touches that mark it as a definite progenitor of those films. For instance, just before the climactic gun battle, Bull takes a sympathetic interest in an orphaned kitten, a motif echoed years later in This Gun for Hire. At another point, with rather heavy irony, a crook is gunned down in a flower shop before a wreath reading "Rest In Peace." A drawback as the film rolls along is the pile-up of increasingly unlikely plot twists, especially where Bull's escape from jail is concerned, although the momentum of events tends to carry the viewer along. Also, while the writing is generally taut, one title card during the gangsters' party sequence is so over-written it suggests a witches' coven. (This line drew chuckles at the screening I attended.) Aside from that unfortunate lapse into purple prose, Underworld holds up beautifully, at least as well as the more familiar gangster classics of the '30s it influenced. This film deserves the attention that should come with a full restoration and greater availability.
In a way, I suppose this film simply managed to push all the right
buttons so far as I was concerned. The basic theme of conflicting love
and loyalty is one that has always called to my heart, and the central
trio of characters happen to tap into stereotypes of instant appeal:
gentle, honourable intellectual - sharp-witted and independent beauty -
and brash, brave brute of a bully, as intemperate in his passions as in
his lack of taste, and yet not wholly without merit.
But while the initial premise may benefit from join-the-dots attraction, it is the performances and execution of the film that give it its power. All three principals do an outstanding job. Clive Brooks, as the educated man brought low by drink and redeemed by the casual generosity of a gangster, makes use of every shading of expression in a sensitive face, conveying more with fewer words in one glance than anyone else in the cast. His scenes with 'Feathers' are a tour-de-force. Despite his reticence, it's easy to credit that he is not only the most intelligent but - with the ironic vulnerability of the civilised man amidst those who live by tooth and claw - the most idealistic character in the film. Having thrown his lot in with criminals, he does the best he can to keep faith; but his eyes betray everything he cannot say.
Evelyn Brent has perhaps the hardest task, that of raising the moll 'Feathers' into more than just an object of general desire and appendage to her man. From her very first scenes - where she publicly adjusts her garter beneath the thigh-skimming hem of her dress - she radiates allure. But she also comes across as more perceptive and quick than her consort, and far more collected and self-contained. It's not hard to understand her roving eye when she meets a man more intriguing than Bull Weed, the jovial vulgarian who maintains her in the lap of luxury; but it is to the credit of George Bancroft, as 'Bull Weed', that we also sympathies with her reluctance to leave her protector in the lurch when she has the chance.
My admiration for Bancroft's acting gradually increased throughout the film. At the beginning he comes across as little better than a ham, gesturing over-widely and falling into uproarious laughter that is a little too loud and a little too long. But as time progresses it becomes evident that it is not the actor but the gangster himself who is playing a larger-than-life role, and when Bull Weed's defences slip we start to see the limited, confused man behind the act. Striding drunkenly for revenge, he transcends his humanity to become a lurching, elemental force. In court he shrinks to an uncomprehending ox of a man, all swagger gone. And finally, in perhaps Bancroft's finest achievement of all, with no audience left to play to but the shadows, Bull Weed in his betrayal becomes merely human, sinking back into the pretension-free gutter from which he must once have climbed. His last scenes carry a conviction and depth of character on which the success of the film ultimately rests, and which would have been all but unthinkable at the start.
Besides all this, the film itself is quite simply beautiful; beautifully made, beautifully lit, beautifully shot. It's no wonder that it was a smash hit by word of mouth, nor that it still stands up today, where the use of cruder sentiment or melodrama might long since have reduced it to the status of mere historical curiosity.
One of the great joys of prohibition-era gangster films is the colorful
dialogue spat out by the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. As
that element would, obviously, be missing from a silent film, I wasn't
how I would react to Underworld.
Not to worry. This is a great film, one of the best prohibition-era gangster films I've seen, ranking slightly ahead of Little Caesar and the Public Enemy, and maybe only slightly below Scarface (1932). Tough, tense, tightly written--interestingly, Howard Hawks is credited for the scenario--and with gorgeous DARK cinematography and Josef von Sternberg's usual excellence in direction. I barely missed the lack of gangster-speak.
I suppose this film was a template upon which a lot of gangster films were based. It struck me while watching it how much it had in common with the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990)--a love triangle between a mob boss, his moll, and his right hand man. And it's all about the gangsters' peculiar code of ethics.
I'd rate it a perfect 10, but for a muddled and badly-handled prison break sequence, which I watched three times and still couldn't figure out. Maybe I'm just dense; maybe it was actually a genius bit of filmmaking and it just flew over my head, but for now, 9/10.
Ben Hecht's original story won an Oscar the first year of the Academy's
existence and it deserved it. The film should have garnered additional
for Von Sternberg's direction, screenplay and cinematography. All are top
of the line.
The story has been copied many times - gang leader rehabilitates down and out highly intelligent former lawyer (who is on the skids) and latter becomes brains of his operation, falls for his girl, but both are too noble to betray their friend. However, the friend gets wind and gets jealous resulting in an ultimate showdown.
The superlative, tight direction of Von Sternberg and the very atmospheric cinematography (heavy use of revealing close-ups and soft focus) along with the adult script make this one of the best gangster films you'll ever see.
It has always puzzled me why another gangster film that year, THE RACKET, earned an Oscar nom for best film while a true original like UNDERWORLD did not get nominated for the top honor.
This is one very worth seeking out - an excellent late silent.
The stars are beautifully photographed; the lighting sets the mood, and Ben Hecht's Academy Award winning screenplay all combine to make this the definitive "gangster picture", done before many of the elements became cliches.
A lot of people avoid silent films at all costs, and I understand that totally. Many of these films are stiff, and the plots are either sentimental or obvious.
But there are many reasons to watch a good, or great, silent film. Sometimes the acting, whatever its expressive style, is really wonderful. Often the photography and editing is really terrific and sophisticated. And the stories can be fast, fresh, and even pertinent.
And finally, the silent films easiest for the uninitiated to approach are at the very end of the silent era. That would be 1927. See Joan Crawford in The Unknown for the bizarre, or Murnau's Sunrise for eloquence, or consider this film, the first major film by the soon to be legendary Josef von Sternberg. The only thing that might put off some people is the exaggerated expressions in one of the three main characters, Bull Weed. But go with that flow and you'll see not only some more subtle acting, but a sweet, violent, complex plot interweave in just an hour or so (81 minutes, though there is an 87 minute version out there if you can find it, Netflix doesn't have it). The Criterion disc version is really clean (another reason to consider this as an intro silent films, since it isn't broken up or scratched to death).
"Underworld" is filmed with visual complexity even though it lacks some of the virtuosic moving camera of Murnau. The sets are simple but convincing, and the shift in attention to the gangster side of the story, complete with guns and molls and the precursors (or pre-precursors) of film noir, is gripping. It's not as intense as the heyday of gangster films just four or five years later, but it has if anything more emotional sophistication. The story was written by the legendary Ben Hecht, which might explain some of its success.
Von Sternberg you say? Well, he was a master at creating aura, and between him and Dietrich a whole new level of starmaking savvy was born. This, as a first film, and as a last minute replacement, was expected to flop, and was released in a single New York theater. Word spread, however, and it became a hit. You can see why. Great stuff.
I just saw a re-issue of this film tonight as part of the 26th annual
Three Rivers Film Festival in Pittsburgh and I was highly satisfied.
The Alloy Orchestra were on-hand to provide an all-new live score,
which created a near-perfect match for this underrated classic.
The acting was spot-on (although admittedly a much different style than modern audiences are used to), the set design and lighting were pitch-perfect (check out the copious amounts of confetti at the Underworld Ball), and the complexities of the characters and plot line far exceeded anything I was expecting from an 80 year-old film. Suffice it to say that modern cinema has not cornered the market on engaging, surprising and provocative storytelling.
If you have a chance to see Underworld, particularly when accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, take the opportunity. It's a rarefied experience that's well worth your 90 minutes.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Underworld" put gangster movies on the map and established Chicago as
the city where they all hung out. Ben Hecht had never written a movie
before but he based the sparse 18 page synopsis on a dozen years
experience on such Chicago dailies as "The Journal", "The Daily News"
and "The Tribune". Even though he had had a Broadway flop with "The
Egotist" in 1923, his credentials on crime were second to none.
Sternberg's and Hecht's Chicago was dreamlike - "a great city in the
dead of night". They also both had a hand in Bull Weed's creation - the
last of a dying breed of old style gangsters, he didn't seem to have
much of a gang, except "Slippy" (Larry Semon, making one of his last
screen appearances) and seemed to work alone. The early establishing
scenes were probably Hecht's and Bull's fall and redemption were the
creation of Sternberg. In the early scenes Bull Weed's capers have an
earthy humour that is not exactly in keeping with Sternberg's heavy
symbolism. To Hecht and other 1920s press buddies gangsters were there
to be cultivated and admired, a gangster pal was almost a status
In the late twenties George Bancroft was every movie goers idea of what a real gangster was like - the hearty handshake, the brutal camaraderie and the cunningness involved in putting a rival gangster "on the spot" - these traits shaped the Bancroft "gangster" and sound added the gruff, rasping voice which perfected his characterization. Unfortunately he started to believe he really was invincible so his star quickly faded.
The combined narrative and visuals made an extraordinary impact. Bull Weed is seen by a drunken tramp pulling a robbery at 2 in the morning. "The great Bull Weed closing another account". Bull observes under the tramp's attire that there is a lot of finesse and takes him under his wing. He goes by the name of "Rolls Royce" (Clive Brook) - "I'm a Rolls Royce for silence" but Bull nicknames him "The Professor", puts him up in the old hide-out and easily makes a gentleman of him - "see these books, he's read them all - he likes to read"!!! These crooks look the real deal - rival gang boss Mulligan (Fred Kohlar) is just a seething mass of brutality, he desperately wants to get even with Bull for making him look a fool at a speakeasy when he had been trying to belittle Rolls Royce into picking up a $10 bill he had placed in a spittoon.
He now sees his chance at the "Gangster's Ball" when "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent) is to be crowned queen. The sheer brutality of some of the scenes would have had a shocking impact on audiences of the day, countered with some extraordinary visuals - a robbery that is shown through a jewelry store window and when Bull comes through the darkened door after the violent scene between "Feathers" and Mulligan, just a cloud of smoke in the dark is enough to show Mulligan has got his come-uppance.
In the talkies Clive Brook was very "stiff upper lip" and didn't seem to give his roles much dimension but his "Rolls Royce" performance could not be bettered. He is both "Feathers" and Bull's conscience, their better selves and is the reason for "Feathers" redemption. Bull is to be hanged for the murder of Mulligan but the word on the street is that "The Professor" and "Feathers" are pretty hot and heavy. Rolls Royce arranges a breakout which goes wrong. Bull does escape but is left to fight it out in a blazing, bloody battle with the police, his parting words - "It took me one hour to find out what I needed to know my entire life".
George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook were all at the peak of their professional careers at this time. Brent gave most of her characters a sultry, world weary air and she was hotly in demand - before gangster's molls became too cute and wisecracking!!!
I had read elsewhere that Underworld was the first film noir, but I
didn't have high expectations before I saw the Criterion release. The
action flows quickly and compellingly, while the noir scenes are
beautifully done. A lot of it resembles Metropolis - the dance-hall
scenes, the factory whistle, etc.
A lot of what I thought was original in Scarface (1932) is anticipated here - Ben Hecht wrote both of them. The love triangle, the flower shop, the apocalyptic shoot-out are much the same. Hecht complained about the (few) sentimental bits in Underworld, obviously Scarface was his come- back to Sternberg - but he owes a big debt to Sternberg for inventing so much new visual language.
Film noir seems to have developed gradually out of the chiaroscuro used by painters, as and when cameras became capable of it. The last third of Pandora's Box is noir, as is much of The Wind and most of The Lodger. The Lodger is probably the first all noir, but it is inferior to Underworld - Hitchcock was undermined by matinée-idol Ivor Novello's demand for a safe and innovative ending.
Definitely a must-see - too many people overlook silent cinema.
I am not a big fan of the gangster film; when I am in the vicinity of
the crime drama I always gravitate towards noir, where the moral lesson
reserved for our protagonist in crime is not simply a present awareness
that this life was only paid back with suffering but a deeper glimpse
of the entire karmic process that produces a life of suffering.
In a gangster film this lesson is expressed in one of two ways; the protagonist is either left a broken, doomed being whose tragic fate is envied by no one, or is purged in the fire and brimstone of a final violence. So although we have watched secretly fascinated at the social fabric in ruins, it is important, in both respects, that we leave the theater restored in ethical order. We thus assume the role of the despised public enemy; his fate is ours for having indulged the antisocial fantasy. The final taste is always gingerly bitter, and works when it does because we invested so much of ourselves in the wrong side of the fence.
So you may hear of this as a milestone in the evolution of this type of film, and it's all because of the finale. It is this cathartic vision of some urban mid-station on the road to limbo where, amid a pall of gunsmoke and broken shards of brick wall, our protagonist comes to realize folly and is purged from life almost as a hero.
It is important to note that he doesn't go out all guns blazing, but rather surrenders to the cops. He will face death, but will not be even momentarily martyred on screen; what is heroic about him, so properly old fashioned, is that he honorably extricates from his bloody fate the innocent.
You can't miss any of this if you're a fan of the gangster genre. Scarface - the original - was built on this.
There are a few other instances that exert some cinematic intrigue; the fast-cutting of faces, superimpositions, shadows across walls. But it does not match the more interesting experiments going on in silent cinema of the time, or what this man would be doing the following year.
What is so apt about all of this is the smoky, drowsily anxious mood, the sense of excited weariness at the prospect of danger. There is a brawl in what only 30 years before would have been called a saloon. It's called the 'Dreamland Cafe', and just outside a neon sign reading 'The City is Yours' flashes the grinning mobster and his moll.
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