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A stylish crime drama from the late silent era that still packs a punch
wmorrow5912 March 2005
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.
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A question of loyalty
Igenlode Wordsmith22 July 2004
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.
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plaidpotato20 July 2003
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 sure 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.
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A truly great film that stands the test of time.
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.
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Vividly made, early pre-gangster gangster film.
secondtake25 August 2010
Underworld (1927)

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.
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A Lost Gem That Deserves to Be Seen (Especially with New Soundtrack!)
MITCH!4 November 2007
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.
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The Last of the Old Style Gangsters!!!
kidboots1 January 2012
Warning: 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 symbol.

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!!!
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Dreamland theater
chaos-rampant17 September 2011
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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early classic gangster
SnoopyStyle14 July 2015
Bull Weed is a boisterous gangster bank robber. His girlfriend is the flashy Feathers McCoy. His rival is Buck Mulligan. Wensel is a vagrant but he's no snitch. He's a Rolls Royce of silence. Bull gives Rolls Royce a thousand bucks and makes him a partner in crime. Using Rolls Royce's brains, Bull becomes even more successful. At a wild party, Buck attacks Feathers and an angry drunken Bull kills him. Bull is sent to prison. Feathers convinces Rolls Royce to run away with her but she changes her mind to break him out of prison.

This is a great pre-Depression era gangster movie. It has the classic gangster style and characters. It's a silent movie that lays out the genre that would explode a few years later. This is one in a line of developments in the gangster genre.
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Wonderful Surprise
Prof_Lostiswitz2 May 2012
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.
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One of von Sternberg's best!
JohnHowardReid25 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
George Bancroft (Bull Weed), Clive Brook (Rolls Royce), Evelyn Brent (Feathers McCoy), Larry Semon (Slippy Lewis), Fred Kohler (Buck Mulligan), Helen Lynch (Mulligan's girl-friend), Jerry Mandy (Paloma), Karl Morse (High Collar Sam), Alfred Allen (judge), Shep Houghton (street kid), Julian Rivero (Mulligan henchman).

Director. JOSEF VON STERNBERG. Screenplay: Howard Hawks. Adapted by Robert N. Lee and Charles Furthman from the story by Ben Hecht. Titles: George Marion, Jr. Director of photography: Bert Glennon. Supervising film editor: E. Lloyd Sheldon. 2nd unit director: Henry Hathaway. Art director: Hans Dreier. Associate producer: B.P. Schulberg. Producer: Hector Turnbull. Presented by Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky.

Copyright 29 October 1927 by Paramount Famous Lasky Corp. New York opening at the Paramount, 2 August 1927. U.S. release: 29 October 1927. 8 reels. 7,643 feet.

SYNOPSIS: New member of an underworld gang takes an interest in the boss' moll.

NOTES: Academy Award, Original Story, Ben Hecht (defeating The Last Command and The Patent Leather Kid). Number 8 in The Film Daily 1927 poll of U.S. film critics.

COMMENT: Just as entertaining today as when first released nearly 80 years ago, this fast-paced story (with concise, often-amusing titles by George Marion, Jr.) is made marvelously vivid by von Sternberg's passion for atmospheric effects (especially in the fantastic climax) and by a number of particularly vibrant performances.

Miss Brent is perfect. Her first scene with the reformed Clive Brook is an acting tour-de-force. Mr. Brook is also quite extraordinary. In his introductory scenes he is almost unrecognizable, making the transition from bum to gentleman crook with a polished ease that dazzles with fluid charm. Can this be the same wooden Brook that gave such stiff performances in early talkies?

Bancroft is also a powerhouse, and all are well served by von Sternberg's (don't take any notice of the name on the credits) film noir photography. (The photographer's union enforced the rule that one of their members be engaged, even if he did no work and offered no suggestions.)
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The First Ever Film Noir.
morrison-dylan-fan2 July 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Joining in a poll on ICM for a poll on the best movies of 1927,I started looking for titles at the last minute. While scrolling for short films I stumbled on a Silent Film Noir. Just beating Fritz Lang's Noir-style Spiv epic Spiones,I was thrilled to discover that this appears to be the first ever full-on Film Noir.

The plot:

Proudly robbing stores sing-handed, 'Bull' Weed feels top of the world. Using some of his cold hard cash,"Bull" gets lawyer 'Rolls Royce' Wensel back on his feet,and starts working with him. Whilst becoming an unstoppable team, 'Rolls Royce' starts feeling tempted to steal what is most valuable to Bull:his girlfriend 'Feathers' McCoy. Caught up in a shoot-out with thug 'Buck' Mulligan,Bull lands in a Death Row pen. Needing help to escape,Bull discovers the loyalties of the underworld.

View on the film:

Paving the path of a new genre/style,director Josef von Sternberg (replacing fired Arthur Rosson) and cinematographer Bert Glennon pave the path with an extraordinary confidence,as ultra-stylised blasts of smoke gunfire give the shootouts a frantic energy which is still felt in Neo-Noir and Crime films. Sending 'Feathers' in the air with glowing lights giving this deadly siren a Femme Fatale aura,Sternberg gives the melodrama romance between 'Bull'/ 'Feathers' and Rolls Royce a Film Noir grilling via the locations having a documentary grit and hanging shadows lighting the darkness awaiting the trio.

Wanting his name (and that of co-writers Howard Hawks/Charles Furthman & Robert N. Lee) removed from what was expected by the studio to be a flop, Ben Hecht ended up winning Best Screenplay at the first ever Oscar's.Giving a voice to the genre,Hecht makes the dialogue crackle with a rich pessimism,lit by an awareness from Bull of sinking into the depths of the underworld.

Stepping into the first pair of Femme Fatale heels,the elegant Evelyn Brent gives a marvellous performance as 'Feathers',whose Melodrama romantic feelings towards the guys is given a Film Noir sass by Brent which is as light as a feather. Taking aim at the Noir loner figure, George Bancroft gives a magnificent performance as 'Bull',which strikes with a burning madness in Bull's eyes,which Bancroft subtly underlines with a growing sorrow,as Film Noir comes out of the underworld.
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Atmospheric gangster yarn
MissSimonetta20 March 2016
Contrary to popular belief, the gangster picture only grew more popular with the coming of sound and did not originate there. Underworld (1927) is not the first gangster movie made in Hollywood but it is one of the most seminal. It brings all the images and tropes we associate with the Jazz Age/Great Depression impression of the genre to the forefront: gunfights in the dark, brassy molls, and speakeasies flowing with booze and jazz music.

The story is simple, a love triangle with rather flat characterizations, but it's forgivable because everything is played with such grand style and flair. The performances are strong, with Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook, and the shamefully underrated George Bancroft bringing much to their one-note characters. Von Sternberg's direction and Bert Glennon's cinematography are just gorgeous, elevating the gritty urban setting to almost Gothic levels in the moody black and white lighting.

A great gangster flick, one I actually prefer to the Oscar-nominated The Racket from the same year. It has Thomas Meighan, yes, but not nearly as much atmosphere.
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An Impressive Debut by Josef von Sternberg
CJBx75 November 2014
UNDERWORLD (1927) tells the story of love, betrayal and murder among gangsters in 1920's Chicago. Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), an alcoholic former lawyer, gets back on his feet when gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) takes him in off of the street. Complications arise when Weed's girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent) and Royce start to become attracted to each other, and when a rival gangster, Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) becomes increasingly antagonistic towards Weed. Directed by Josef von Sternberg.

UNDERWORLD was von Sternberg's debut feature, and it's quite impressive. This is basically the granddaddy of gangster movies, and you can see its influence in later classics such as LITTLE CAESAR and SCARFACE (the original 1932 version). Ben Hecht was the main screenwriter, so the movie emerges as a starkly realistic portrait of organized crime during the Prohibition. The film moves fast and doesn't waste time, clocking in at an hour and 20 minutes. It keeps you in suspense until the end.

The film also boasts fine performances. Clive Brook was very effective as Rolls Royce, a stoic, down-and-out former lawyer who strives to maintain what little dignity he has left and tries to fight his attraction to Feathers. He is quite expressive and believable. George Bancroft is also fine as Weed, alternating convincingly between boisterous charm and raw aggression. Evelyn Brent is adequate in her role as Feathers, though I felt she could have been a bit more expressive at times, but she does have good chemistry with Clive Brook. Fred Kohler is appropriately menacing and brutish as Mulligan, and Larry Semon offers a bit of comic relief as well.

The cinematography of UNDERWORLD shows considerable skill and accomplishment. Editing is smooth and fluid, and there are a variety of tracking shots, especially during a car chase sequence, as well as interesting camera angles and lighting. It's an impressive debut and one of the foundations of an entire genre. SCORE: 9/10
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A Study of Three
HomeinIndiana3 December 2013
Josef Sternberg's Underworld is a compelling story of three people. Bull Weed is a crude gangster with a penchant for helping people; we see him kill, and yet we still find redeeming virtues. Rolls Royce is an attorney driven to Skid Row by his alcoholism, lifted out of his misery by Bull. Finally, Feathers McCoy winces when Bull introduces her to Rolls Royce as his girl, a small moment that tells us all we need to know; and she doesn't answer when Rolls Royce asks her what she was doing when Bull rescued her. There are also three central scenes in the film: the early scene in the speakeasy, when Buck Mulligan (another gangster) tries to humiliate Rolls Royce; the hypnotic scene of the gangsters' ball, a surreal and sinister gathering of the underworld elite; and the exciting final shootout. The Alloy Orchestra track that comes with the Criterion DVD fits the dark mood of the film perfectly.
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Enjoyed it despite my best intentions
Aaron Igay30 October 2013
Not being much of a fan of silent dramas I wasn't looking forward to this film. I was watching the movie merely for it's historical significance as the first gangster film and as a proto-noir. But I quickly was sucked into the love triangle with Bull, Rolls and Feathers, with names like those how could you not be? The great dialogue of later gangster films was already here, even if I could have done with a bit of a harder edge. Early on there were times when I thought the film felt a bit too light-hearted but it was punctuated by enough grit to force me to take the simple story seriously. Not the greatest gangster film, but perhaps the greatest surprise, which after-all, is why I watch movies.
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Criminal Life
Edgar Soberon Torchia20 December 2011
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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Pioneering gangster film from visual innovator Josef Von Sternberg
timmy_50114 April 2011
Warning: Spoilers
There's a card at the start of this that explains that Underworld popularized the gangster film and it's easy to see many of the conventions that would define this popular genre on display here. Von Sternberg's film emphasizes the romantic elements of the criminal lifestyle by minimizing the on screen violence (no innocent victims) and playing up the honor of the thieves with scenes such as the one in which all the city's criminals call a truce and attend a party in formal attire. There's also a love triangle between Bull Weed, the crime boss, his girl Feathers and the bookish alcoholic turned right hand man, Rolls Royce. The film is written by Ben Hecht, who recycled some of these ideas for Scarface a few years later; anyone who has seen that film will remember the sign that reads "The world is yours," which also appears here in slightly less dramatic form as well as scenes involving a gangster holing up in an apartment for a shootout with a huge number of police being common to both. Fortunately, Von Sternberg decided to interfere with Hecht's work, as all indications (especially this film's vast superiority to the later film) point towards his having greatly improved the script.

While the story is pretty standard stuff, especially in light of all the familiar gangster films that would come later, Von Sternberg's direction is quite remarkable. The director's previous film The Salvation Hunters (1925) features some ambitious techniques but it also had pacing issues and an abrupt ending, neither of which mar Underworld. This plot unfolds at an admirably even pace, particularly in a scene in which a robbery committed by Bull is edited to intersect with a romantic dalliance between Rolls Royce and Feathers. Then there are the experimental/Impressionistic techniques Von Sternberg utilizes such as a shot from Rolls Royce's perspective, some superimpositions, and a quick montage at a party, all of which greatly complement the action without calling too much attention to themselves. Even at this early stage in his career, Von Sternberg was known for his sense of composition and mastery of visual techniques, both of which are in full effect here.

This great film has recently become available on DVD from Criterion, with a really impressive transfer, a choice between two scores: one jaunty and upbeat and the other more somber, and a nice "visual essay" by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom providing some historical context. Highly recommended.
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David Jeffers for SIFFblog.com
rdjeffers17 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Monday, October 18, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

"Attila, the Hun, at the gates of Rome."

A drunk (Clive Brook) stumbles onto a bank robbery "...in the dead of night" and the gangster committing the crime snatches him from the street. Impressed by his resolute character when humiliated and threatened with violence, Bull Weed (George Bancroft) nicknames the derelict "Rolls Royce" and offers to put him "on his feet." The gangster's moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent) and his new man fall in love and engage in a struggle over happiness, or loyalty to their friend, as the coming battle envelops them.

Film critic Andrew Sarris described the setting of Underworld, directed by master realist Josef von Sternberg, as "festive criminality." Brook delivers a career performance as the sage with nothing to lose, opposite Bancroft's archetypal thug. Comedian Larry Semon is also featured in a rare dramatic role. Based on an original story by Hollywood legend Ben Hecht Underworld won the first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
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Very innovative and entertaining, but the ending is very weak.
MartinHafer25 August 2010
'Bull' Weed is a tough gangster whose girlfriend is 'Feathers'. One nit when Bull is pulling off a robbery, he meets up with a bum who sees him committing the crime. Inexplicably, instead of killing the witness, Bull christens the guy 'Rolls Royce' and decides to raise out of the gutter--eventually making him his #2 man in the gang.

Everyone fears Bull--after all, he's a very tough customer. Well, ALMOST everyone one. A really, really stupid crook named 'Buck' is interested in Feathers and wants her for himself. And, when Buck makes his move and kidnaps Feathers, Bull kills him in a fit of rage. Bull is then sentenced to death (though because of the way the crime occurred, this seemed a bit excessive). While Bull is on death row, he gets word that Feathers and Rolls Royce are carrying on together. While it IS true that the pair have fallen in love, they do not act on it out of loyalty to Bull--but Bull is determined to kill them for supposedly betraying him. How all this is resolved is a bit of a disappointment. It's sad, actually, as up to this point it was a dandy little gangster film--and one that actually helped to launch the gangster film rage in the late 20s and early 30s.
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Great Film
David_Brown23 September 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I am not a big fan of silent films. I generally will only watch them to see a certain star ("Wings" & "It" for Clara Bow & Gary Cooper comes to mind). My personal favorite genre are gangster films. It does not matter if you are talking about Cagney, Robinson & Bogart, right up through "American Gangster", there are less than a handful I did not like. Let me say, this movie is exceptional. It really has a lot of action (Spoilers: Particularly the final scenes with the machine guns), and it has characters that are sympathetic (Particularly Rolls-Royce and Feathers). But what really works best is Bancroft's playing of Bull Weed. Weed is extremely complex. Weed is a bad guy, but not evil like "Machine Gun" Butch Schmidt (Wallace Beery in "The Big House), Cody Jarrett, Rico Bandetto, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni's "Scarface") or Tony Montana. He has compassion for those less fortunate (Rolls-Royce, the kitten, particularly the guard he refused to kill, when he escaped (A real evil person would kill that guard)). An awesome film, well worth watching for gangster film fans.
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A Pretty Good Film, as Gangster Films Go
silentmoviefan9 August 2012
Warning: Spoilers
This was a Christmas present to me several years ago. It has atmosphere out the wazoo! You feel like you're there in the midst of all those criminals and their dames! This film is so good, not even the presence of Larry Semon can mess it up! Bull Weed is a man's man and he does what he can right up to the time he's executed! He's also so noble, he goes back to prison to be put to death after taking care of some last-minute business. Evelyn Brent is as she always is, beautiful and a bit petulant. The only reason I don't give this a higher score is because gangster movies really aren't my thing that much. Plus, I like happy endings and executions (which you don't see because the film ends before the switch is thrown) just aren't my cup of tea. However, if you do like silent films and you do like gangster films, this one really is worth your while. Unlike certain other films, this one, I'm sure is available commercially somewhere.
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The Predecessor to Warner Bros.' Bread and Butter Gangster Films
evanston_dad21 October 2011
A stylish late silent from Josef von Sternberg about a crime lord (George Bancroft) who makes over an alcoholic bum (Clive Brook) only to succumb to murderous jealousy when he suspects his girlfriend (Evelyn Brent) of falling for the reformed and refined gentleman.

Von Sternberg makes active and imaginative use of his camera, and the film is crisp and dynamic. You can tell watching it that it influenced a thousand gangster pictures that came after it, and Warner Bros. pretty much adopted its gritty look wholesale for the slew of cheap crime fills it would go on to make throughout the 1930s.

"Underworld" brought Ben Hecht the very first Oscar for Original Story, which at the time was the closest thing to an award for Best Original Screenplay that the Academy doled out.

Grade: A
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UNDERWORLD (Josef von Sternberg, 1927) ***1/2
MARIO GAUCI5 March 2011
This landmark film was maverick director Sternberg's first studio-made effort after a number of false starts (which are denoted in the excellent accompanying 36-minute video essay on the Criterion DVD). While there had been gangster pictures prior to this (notably D.W. Griffith's THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY [1912] and Raoul Walsh's REGENERATION [1915] – which I may be getting to now on the strength of both UNDERWORLD and my concurrent Noir marathon), the Sternberg picture seems to have struck a particular chord with audiences as, we are told, screenings were extended all through the night in order to accommodate the extensive demand!

In retrospect, the film only features a handful of action sequences – all of which, however, mark turning points in the narrative. The rest is made up of characterization and atmosphere: the latter obviously showcasing the director's masterful craftsmanship (aided by Bert Glennon's camera-work and Hans Dreier's sets) and the former the handiwork of the celebrated Ben Hecht (though he only supplied the original story, as it was reworked by others for the finished version including Sternberg himself) – still, Hecht (who had initially disowned it) was rewarded with an Academy Award at the very first Oscar ceremony! Interestingly, Howard Hawks is also said to have been involved in the 'scenario': if anything, he and Hecht (who particularly objected to Sternberg's ending) would supply their own gangster milestone in SCARFACE (1932), which left no room for sentimentality in its uncompromising approach and made no apologies for the anti-hero's ambitions by substituting "World" upon reprising this film's scrolling neon sign "The City Is Yours"! Hawks, alone, then, would much later borrow the nick-name of the leading lady here, "Feathers", for his RIO BRAVO (1959)!

For the record, Sternberg is quoted as having said "I care nothing about the story, only how it is photographed and presented". This is perhaps evidenced here by the dearth of typical gangster activity: we never know just what Bancroft's racket is, a robbery/frame-up and capture/trial are depicted via a series of quick shots, while both the opening bank job and Bancroft's eventual escape from prison are picked-up when they are almost over. The elimination of his rival (since actor Fred Kohler looks and scowls a lot like Lon Chaney, I could not help imagining him in this role and what his collaboration with Sternberg might have been like!), too, occurs over the latter's unwarranted attentions towards his girl.

Incidentally, as with THE RACKET (1928), this adopts the beefy businessman-like gangster prototype (presumably inspired by the real-life Al Capone) but, soon, a more dynamic – and nuttier – variety would emerge and supersede it, exemplified on the screen by the likes of James Cagney and Paul Muni. Indeed, while the mobster here i.e. George Bancroft would remain active within the genre (I will be checking out his well-regarded BLOOD MONEY [1933] presently), it is telling that he is seen – both literally and figuratively – being wiped out by Cagney in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)! Other stereotypes on display are the hoodlum's learned associate (as played by Clive Brook, who actually starts out as a bum!) and a 'funny' sidekick (forgotten comic Larry Semon, who eventually falls by the wayside even in this case!).

The heroine, played by Evelyn Brent, is once again a pretty forceful character (Sternberg seemed to have a particular knack in this area, which would obviously reach its zenith with his 7 films featuring Marlene Dietrich) and predictably comes to prefer the suave Brook over her uncouth lover/boss Bancroft. Despite their mutual affection, the two however decide to stand by the gangster (who, having been alerted as to their 'betrayal', is all ready to exact vengeance)…and, following a remarkable siege at the mob hide-out, what we get is a surprisingly philosophical resolution to the dilemma!
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