'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
Although Underworld is considered the first gangster film, technically it isn't because Bull Weed does not have a gang, and so literally cannot be a gangster. He is a well-known criminal, but he commits his murders and robberies on his own. See more »
'Underworld' is the second film of Josef von Sternberg recently seen. The other being 'The Docks of New York'. Although 'Underworld' is the more historically significant of the two films, being the first gangster film and one of the earliest film noir-like films, there is a preference for 'The Docks of New York'. Both are very, very good films though. Sternberg was a fine director, evident in his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, and George Bancroft deserves a lot more credit as an actor.
As said, 'Underworld' is a very good film. It is not one of Sternberg's best, do prefer the likes of 'Shanghai Empress', 'The Blue Angel', 'The Scarlet Empress' and 'The Devil is a Woman'. It is incredible though that this is only his third solo film, well technically the fifth but two are lost, and his distinctive style seemed not only obvious throughout but fully established, one does not usually that with directors at this early a stage, so 'Underworld' was something of an achievement.
Is 'Underworld' perfect? No as two scenes didn't quite work for me. One was the prison break sequence, which lacked the necessary tension and felt choppily staged.
The other was the ending, after the exciting shoot out it then ends on a tacked on note that is too at odds with what came before and came over as a little heavy-handed as well.
Sternberg's direction though is truly impressive, one does not expect to see direction this polished, visually beautiful or taut at such an early career stage suggestive of a director who had actually been in the profession for years beforehand (that's a compliment by the way). What immediately stands out is the production values, the settings are evocatively seedy yet made oddly attractive at the same time and the cinematography has great audacious style and gritty atmosphere. Sternberg's films always had great use of light and shadow and 'Underworld' is no exception. The music is suitably haunting.
Other than two scenes, the story was riveting with a suitably pull no punches atmosphere, some exciting moments (especially the climactic shoot-out, which is why it's a shame that how it's resolved disappoints) and some nice turns that stopped it from becoming predictable without it becoming confusing. The central relationship to me was handled fine. The performances likewise, with Bancroft showing again with his intensity that he is deserving of more credit. Clive Brook shows here how his acting grew significantly from when he first started and Evelyn Brent is charming.
Concluding, very good. 8/10
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