Underworld

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Robert N. Lee (adaptation by Charles Furthman; story by Ben Hecht)
Stars: George Bancroft (Bull Weed), Evelyn Brent (Feathers McCoy), Clive Brook (Rolls Royce), Fred Kohler (Buck Mulligan), Helen Lynch (Buck’s Girl), Larry Semon (Slippy Lewis), Jerry Mandy (Paloma)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1927
Country: U.S.
Underworld Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Underworld

Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, which was released to great acclaim and box office success in 1927, the year in which synchronized sound began its dominance of Hollywood, is frequently cited as the first modern gangster film, the progenitor of the controversial early-’30s triumvirate of Little Caeser (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932). Although the film lacks many of the later gangster films’ most important elements, particularly references to bootlegging and, of course, the clearly ethnic accents of the gangster antiheroes, virtually everything else about it was ahead of its time. There had been gangster films before—notably D.W. Griffith’s 1912 one-reeler The Musketeers of Pig Alley—many of which were shot in New York City’s slums and featured real-life criminals as extras, but Underworld was the first to make art out of the genre, with von Sternberg bathing the screen in expressionistic shadows and displaying an impressive grasp of montage editing to heighten the impact of on-screen violence. The result is a brilliantly executed criminal melodrama that helped set the stage for one of Hollywood’s most notorious genres.

Although not explicitly set in Chicago, the story for Underworld was originally concocted by Chicago journalist-turned-screenwriter Ben Hecht, who derived some of his ideas from the Cicero and South Side mobs in the Windy City, which the unnamed critic at Variety noted in the first line of his or her review. This was typical of silent-era crime films, which tended to tell stories literally “ripped from the headlines” with only minor changes in names and dates, and Underworld, despite being largely fantastical in conception, is awash with small touches that connect it to real-life events, such as the gunning down of a gangster in a flower shop, which audiences at the time would have immediately connected with the similar slaying of Chicago mobster Dion O’Banion three years earlier.

Underworld’s main character is a former lawyer-turned-alcoholic bum (Clive Brook) who one night happens across a bank that is being single-handedly robbed by the infamous gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft). Bull Weed decides to take the bum under his wing; he rechristens him Rolls Royce and puts him to work, first cleaning up at the Dream Café, the saloon where all the gangsters hang out, and later as his personal assistant and second-in-command. It is in this capacity that Rolls Royce crosses paths with Feathers McCoy (Evenlyn Brent), Bull Weed’s dynamic and flirtatious “moll,” leading to a love triangle in which various loyalties are tested when Bull is sent to prison for murdering a rival gangster who tried to rape Feathers, thus freeing her and Rolls to pursue the feelings they had previously needed to repress.

The story, which was adapted from Hecht’s initial 18-page outline by Charles Furthman and then scripted by Robert N. Lee, is fairly flimsy, melodramatic material set against the backdrop of organized crime, but it works well enough, especially given the strong performances by George Bancroft, whose grinning, swaggering bluster has a way of morphing from the genial to seething rage; Clive Brook, whose character is almost entirely internal, yet deeply expressive; and Evenlyn Brent, who plays up Feathers’ flapper-era independence while also conveying a genuine emotional longing.

However, it is von Sternberg’s visual style and the art direction by German émigré Hans Dreier (the entire film was shot on studio sets) that elevates Underworld into something more than a run-of-the-mill crime picture. Although hardly as baroque as his later films with Marlene Dietrich, von Sternberg was clearly a student of both German expressionism and Soviet montage theory, as he employs both approaches with the kind of dexterity and aplomb that is more indicative of European, rather than American, silent cinema. Having made only two films previously, the independently produced The Salvation Hunters (1925) and the unreleased and now lost Charles Chaplin-produced A Woman of the Sea (1926), von Sternberg was looking for a way to meld his avant-garde sensibilities with studio material, and Underworld turned out to be the perfect vehicle. Even critics who didn’t think much of the film, such as The New Republic’s Louise Bogan, couldn’t help but be impressed by von Sternberg’s virtuoso aesthetics, especially his ability to convey complex action with only a few shots: “This kind of incisiveness,” she wrote, “this giving of the part for the whole, when used imaginatively, not spottily or as a trick, is a method exactly suited to the screen, and one little used.”

Throughout the film von Sternberg is particularly fond of using shadows expressively, as when he frames Rolls Royce and Feathers at Bull Weed’s trial with the gangster’s massive shadow on the wall behind them, which both dominates them visually and reminds us that the man to whom they both owe so much is on trial for his life. This is counterbalanced with von Sternberg’s strong sense of how to use close-ups to emphasize emotions and break up the visual field. The film’s climax, which finds Bull Weed busting out of prison in search of his cheating girl and former friend, is awash with contrast and elliptical shapes that eventually give way to a frenetic editing rhythm when he is cornered in his apartment with machine-gun-wielding police outside (not surprisingly, von Sternberg described the film in his autobiography as “an experiment in photographic violence and montage”). The scene is strongly reminiscent of Tony Camonte’s cornering and ultimate demise in Scarface, although Underworld wears its underlying melodrama very much on its sleeve as Rolls risks his life amid a hail of bullets to prove his loyalty to Bull. Although couched in fairly realistic terms, virtually everything in Underworld is pure fantasy, a celluloid projection of popular conceptions of the gangster life, which may be its most important and lasting legacy.

Underworld Criterion Collection Blu-ray
3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg Criterion Collection Blu-ray BoxsetUnderworld is available exclusively via The Criterion Collection’s “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” Blu-ray box set, which also includes The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928).

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (all three films)
Audio
  • Linear PCM 2.0 stereo (all three films)
  • SubtitlesNone
    Supplements
  • Video essay by UCLA film professor Janet Bergstrom
  • Video essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher
  • Swedish television interview from 1968 with director Josef von Sternberg
  • 96-page booklet with essays by Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by the composers; Ben Hecht’s original story for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$99.95
    Release DateOctober 8, 2019

    COMMENTS
    All three films in the “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” Criterion Collection Blu-ray box feature the same high-definition transfers that were used nine years ago for their DVD boxset, except now they are presented in their full resolution (which also means that the dreaded windowboxing has been removed). All three films were subjected to extensive digital restoration, resulting in images that are among the best I have seen of films of this vintage. Underworld was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain positive print, The Last Command was transferred from a 35mm duplicate negative, and The Docks of New York was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive. Of the three films, I would say that Docks looks consistently the best, with incredible contrast and black levels; there are occasional sequences that show significant scratching, usually around reel transfers, but most of the film is remarkably clean and stable. The same goes for Underworld, which also shows some signs of damage in the form of scratches and vertical hairlines, but very little given the film’s age. The Last Command probably looks the worst, although the term “worst” is entirely relative here, as it still looks better than most silent films on home video. The image is slightly softer and more grayish, and there appears to be more damage that couldn’t be digitally corrected. Suffice it to say, though, that all three films look amazing for their age, and Criterion has done a magnificent job preserving them. Each of the films also comes with a choice of two different lossless Linear PCM two-channel stereo soundtracks. All three films have new orchestral scores written exclusively for this release by Robert Israel. Underworld and The Last Command also feature slightly less conventional orchestral scores by Alloy Orchestra (which premiered in 2007 and 2008 at the New York and Telluride Film Festivals, respectively), and The Docks of New York includes a piano- and vocal-based scored by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. All six scores sound clean and robust and add greatly to the pleasure of the viewing experience, regardless of which one you choose.

    The supplements included here are also the same as those that were included in the DVD boxset. Underworld and The Last Command are each accompanied by a detailed, informative visual essay, each of which runs about 35 minutes. In “Underworld: How It Came to Be,” UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom spends 36 minutes studying the film’s fine details, as well as discussing its relationship to von Sternberg’s earlier films, including The Salvation Hunters, from which many clips are included. On The Last Command disc, Tag Gallagher contributes an essay titled “Sternberg Until ’29,” which focuses primarily on the director’s biography and early works, with about five minutes devoted to a detailed exploration of each of the three films included in this boxset. On The Docks of New York disc we have a 1968 interview with von Sternberg (40 min.) from Swedish television, in which he discusses the entirety of his career, with quite a bit of attention paid to his silent films. The boxset also includes a beautifully designed 96-page booklet with essays by critics Geoffrey O’Brien, Anton Kaes, and Luc Sante; notes on the scores by their composers; Ben Hecht’s original story treatment for Underworld; and an excerpt from von Sternberg’s autobiography Fun in a Chinese Laundry about actor Emil Jannings.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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