Friday, January 14, 2011

Josef von Sternberg & Arthur Rosson - Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg's 1927 Underworld was given a rare airing at the New York Film Festival, introduced by festival director Richard Pena as the 'ur-gangster film.' Whether it is ur remains to be seen, since gangster films have been floating around the edges of American movies since the early silent period in D. W. Griffith's Musketeers of Pig Alley and Raoul Walsh's 1915 feature Regeneration. In fact, with von Sternberg as director, it is hardly a gangster film at all. It more of a reverie on what a gangster film could have become if the Depression hadn't got in the way.

The only way Underworld whispers 'gangster film' under its baited breath is from the input of screenwriter Ben Hecht, who wanted to make a film based on his experiences as a Chicago crime beat reporter. And to be sure, there are instances in Underworld that directly link it to 1930s gangster movies, specifically Scarface, also written by Hecht, particularly the neon sign spelling out 'The City Is Yours' to a mob chief and the brutal, shooting gallery gun battle at the film's climax. Also in evidence are Hecht's sarcastic Front Page style one-liners -- for example, one gangster tells another to attend a gangster get-together by saying, 'You've got to show. Everybody with a police record will be there.' This was von Sternberg's second feature and at the outset, Hecht had the most clout, but as the film progressed, von Sternberg emerged victorious.

The story concerns Bull Weed, a blowhard hood (he is referred to as 'Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome') with a hidden heart of gold, played with a Gibson Gowland bluster by George Bancroft. Bull takes a down and out drunk (Clive Brook channeling Thomas Meighan) under his wing, dubbing him Rolls Royce after Rolls proves to Bull that he is not a squealer. Bull is soft on red-hot moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and gets red and hot when rival mobster Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) makes a play for her. But what he doesn't see until too late is that Feather and Rolls are red hot for each other.

Underworld starts out in the rat-a-tat world of Hecht and at the beginning of the film von Sternberg appears out to lunch, Hecht laying out the milieu and staking out the relationships and the film unwinds stodgy and clunky during the opening scenes, making the film look like a cheap programmer.

But von Sternberg rears his ugly head soon enough, shifting the tone and emphasis of the film and leaving Hecht in the dust. The von Sternberg kickoff is a gangsters' ball and, aided and abetted by cinematographer Burt Glennon (who would later hit his stride as house cinematographer to John Ford and as one of the exemplars of the film noir style), von Sternberg cuts loose with a crazy shadow play of light and murk as streamers and confetti rain down upon the debauched and drunken thugs. Von Sternberg even indulges in select point-of-view shots, including one in which the camera eye gets hit in the camera gut anticipating the opening scene of Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss by 37 years.

But changing Underworld from a crime film into a von Sternberg mood piece undercuts Hecht's criminal intentions. Sternberg's obsessions with love triangles (later reaching the ultimate expression in the series of increasing fevered Paramount melodramas with Marlene Dietrich) appear here for the first time and in full force. Bull's overwhelming desire for Feathers turns the film into a tone poem of fear and desire and the gangster world of Underworld into a hermetically sealed fantasyland.

But the real world was not yet ready for a full-blown gangster drama in 1927. The context was not there. It would take the stock market crash and millions lurching for jobs, food, and shelter for the gangster genre to tap into a social and cultural whirlwind that appeared like the death of capitalism, paving the way for inverted American Dream success sagas of Cagney, Robinson, and Muni.

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