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February 8, 2008

Silent Reflections – Underworld (1927)

by HELEN GEIB

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Underworld ought to be one of the best known and best loved silent films. While it’s not a forgotten title among film scholars, it is a hard film to find and that unavailability has made it more written about than seen. That’s a shame, because there aren’t many films that so successfully combine artistic achievement and good old-fashioned entertainment value.

Interest usually centers on its reputation as the prototypical gangster movie. The story was written by Ben Hecht, who won an Oscar for it at the first Academy Awards and would go on to write Scarface a few years later. Only his second Hollywood writing job, Underworld was a brilliant beginning to a career as one of the most successful and prolific screenwriters in the studio era. Like much of his best work, Underworld was informed by Hecht’s colorful experiences as a Chicago newspaperman covering the crime beat in the ‘teens and ‘twenties.

Underworld is the story of gangster “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), his moll “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), and alcoholic lawyer on the skids turned faithful retainer “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook). “Rolls Royce” was an appellation bestowed by Bull and subsequently adopted by everyone in his orbit; it’s not stated, but “Feathers” presumably got her nickname in the same way. In this life, it’s as if they never had any other names. Bull is the kind of man who draws people towards him and re-creates their identities by the sheer force of his personality.

Naturally, he’s also made his share of enemies along the way. The most dangerous are not the forces of law and order, but his gangland rivals. If the law gets him in the end, the seeds of his downfall will have been planted in the criminal underworld. The seeds of his redemption are there, too, in the loyalty of Feathers and Rolls Royce, who love each other, but will never betray the man who picked them up out of the gutter and gave them the chance to live right again.

The rich characterizations and heavy use of close-ups combine to make the movie an actor’s dream project, and Bancroft, Brook, and Brent all give vivid and expressive performances. Bancroft especially brings an incredible dynamism to his part that answers all objections to the gangster character’s plausibility.

It’s a terrifically entertaining movie: fast-paced and exciting, with a knockout finale; colorful in its portrayal of gangland living; offering enduring character archetypes.Underworld has a convincing veneer of verisimilitude and a throbbing heart of Hollywood style romanticism. It’s a potent combination that provided the model for the great gangster films of the ‘thirties that continue to define the genre today. Underworld’s reputation as the granddaddy of all gangster movies is well deserved.

Although director Josef von Sternberg is best remembered today for the cycle of extravagantly odd films he made at Paramount with Marlene Dietrich in the ‘thirties, it is his silents that are his greatest achievements. Earlier in this series I wrote about films by other directors whose careers spanned the silent and sound eras. Those directors’ sound films equaled (Lubitsch) or surpassed (Ford, Ozu, Capra, especially Hitchcock) their work in silent films. Von Sternberg made some enjoyable talkies, but in the silent era he made masterpieces.

Edited to add: On August 24, 2010, Underworld was released by Criterion in a DVD box set collecting three late silents directed by Josef von Sternberg. The other films in the set are The Last Command and the director’s masterpiece The Docks of New York.

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