Underworld (1927, Josef von Sternberg)
Glimmering through these heavy, fogged-in shadows is a story of almost biblical resonance, with echoes spanning across the eight decades since it was told. Paramount’s crown box office jewel of the 1920s changed popular American cinema forever, and is now recognized the world over as having essentially created the gangster film. You can easily fool yourself into thinking that you sense its cogs turning and its catalog of what would now be considered crime drama tropes, ticking the boxes as we go, because you’re an intelligent and savvy modern viewer — but director Josef von Sternberg and a stable of writers and adapters including Ben Hecht have one up on you before you open your eyes: we easily recognize everything this film brings to us because its development of big characters, big images, big melodramatic action is itself so cunning. The film means to be iconic, and is fully aware of the lightning strike it is casting. Not many Hollywood films can claim to carry such a distinctive “ground zero” sense about them even now.
It’s pretty easy to pare down what you need to know about Underworld in a couple of sentences, which is an admirable facet of its elegance — the boorish lunkhead gangster known almost too appropriately as Bull Weed (marvelously rambunctious George Bancroft) hires on alcoholic attorney Rolls Royce (Clive Brook, all wistful side glances) who proves a boon to his operation until he falls hard for Bull’s lady Feathers (Evelyn Brent invaluably brightening what could have been a terribly flat role). When Bull’s engagement in a gang war goes too far and lands him in prison, Feathers and Rolls plot to bust him out but run afoul of Bull’s semi-correct suspicions about them, leading to a morally ambiguous zero-sum sort of finale. The real story of Underworld is von Sternberg’s startling, sumptuous vision of it: rapid cut close-ups of odd and menacing faces, streets that seem almost to leap off the screen with menace, and meaningful glances between people communicating more than any title card ever could.
Nearly all of the things in the film that continue to generate chills of recognition and fear come alive through montage (Lloyd Shelton, who edited this film, also did phenomenal work on Paramount’s Wings the same year), which is saying a lot in a production so filled with imaginative, soon to be endlessly imitated set design and cinematography. Even the way in which the actors approach their performances would come to inform the gangster film for what we can now term to be nearly a century. But the film is valuable now as more than just a road map; it remains the great entertainment that it was when audiences stunned Paramount (and the moral watchdogs guarding Hollywood’s supposed decay of American values) by lining up for blocks upon blocks to see it.
That having been said, there’s something disheartening about the experience for someone whose feelings about this very American genre have always been mixed. This is easily, easily the best gangster movie I have seen to date, but it does verify that inability to be moved by most films in its wheelhouse comes from problems everlasting and fundamental that are not tied simply to the post-Godfather period. The first two thirds of the film are essentially just a triangular character study, but in the third act, Bull faces a quandary upon which all else hinges. On the eve of his execution, he is determined to get out to discover if Feathers has cheated on him with Rolls Royce, and to take revenge on them both; unhelpful commentary from prison guards adds fuel to the death-row fire. As it turns out, he witnesses to his satisfaction that his friends are prepared to go to bat for him, and he almost comically resigns himself to death the next day, because in his last hard-won hour of freedom (which involves an unforgettably breathless, powerful shootout wth police) he discovered all he needed to know, in part by strong-arming Feathers and getting everyone in town either inconvenienced or dead. Knowing that the people he’d loved on the outside haven’t betrayed him is his prime fixation in his last day on earth.
We’re seemingly meant in the end to judge that Bull is an honorable man, with a soft heart for those who’ve made his life of crime bearable and profitable, and any study in the gangster’s sense of loyalty and “moral code” has an uphill battle with me because they’re gangsters and I don’t care. Von Sternberg displays no more consciousness of the outside world than any of the now better-known films he influenced; we’re supposed to feel gratified at the finale that Bull Weed will go to the gallows with peace of mind, and yet: so what? How many cops and bystanders died so he could have that all-important Last Hour? Rolls Royce is conscious of the central fallacy — and Feathers is alternately indulgent and weathered — in the borrowed existence he comes to live, but I wish the film explored that more.
A closer look, however, makes one wonder if the film isn’t just engaging in cheeky irony, and it’s a testament to its strength as a piece of filmmaking that we cannot fully state conclusively what the film’s final argument, if it has one, truly is. A case can easily be made that rather than moralizing or glorifying the life of cruelty, narrow escape and borrowed time that it captures, it simply is aware of its ironies; it’s difficult indeed not to chuckle at Bull’s final concession and resignation after we’ve just witnessed the enormous path of destruction in the wake of his attempted escape. The film closes out rapidly after it resolves the relationship between the three people at its heart, but its deeper questions remain carefully unanswered, including the question of what happens on the outside after Bull’s heart beats no more, and the question of how much ego it takes for a person to believe it’s worth so many human lives to ensure that one has no cause to be jealous of a former lover. That vagueness that’s simultaneously stimulating and slightly lazy would one day lay the groundwork for movies like The Godfather with their seeming ignorance of what their loathsome and lovingly depicted destruction truly means, and no one has to be reminded of how vastly different one person’s “idea” of that film can be from another’s. So it goes in 1920s Hollywood as ever.
Nevertheless, as a piece of storytelling and direction (and intoxicatingly foggy cinematography by Bert Glennon, who later shot Stagecoach), this is just about flawless. The three lead characters are all vivid and beautifully embodied, especially by Clive Brook, though the fevered torment in George Bancroft’s face is something I won’t soon be forgetting. I’m enchanted in a sense by the utterly amoral conversation between Feathers and Rolls Royce wherein they determine that the right and “decent” thing to do is to break someone out of jail! You can claim that the movie wallows in its shadowy violence, but not that it’s predictable, and not that it wastes a single second of its 81 minutes, and not that said shadowy violence isn’t gobsmackingly beautiful to look at.