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.