Thoughts On: “Underworld” (1927)

Better late than never, here’s the last post of Gangster Month! And the best film was saved for last, she declared. I always enjoy doing these theme months, and I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!

The sophisticated, moodily-lit crime drama Underworld (1927) is recognized by many as the “official” launching point of the gangster genre. But even if you removed it from that context, it would easily be considered a masterpiece all on its own. Funnily enough, director Josef von Sternberg himself would’ve probably appreciated it that way. “When I made Underworld I was not a gangster, nor did I know anything about gangsters,” he stated in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By. “I do not value the fetish for authenticity. I have no regard for it. On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself.”

But while Von Sternberg may have crafted his film first and foremost as a compelling story, that story melds perfectly with the dark setting of Roaring Twenties gangster culture–dark in both a figurative and literal sense. The opening title card establishes the mood: “A great city in the dead of night…streets lonely…moon clouded…buildings as empty as the cave dwellings of a forgotten age.” Many of Underworld‘s scenes take place at night, often hours after regular folks would’ve gone to bed. This alone helps the viewer sense the subversive nature of the criminal world.

Its plot is remarkably focused, following three main characters: “Bull” Weed, the brash, boisterous gangster leader; “Rolls Royce” Wensel, the dignified, alcoholic former lawyer who Bull turns into a confidant; and “Feathers” McCoy, Bull’s attractive moll known for the flamboyant feather accents on her clothes. (Interestingly, this might be the only 1920s film that I can readily recall having something akin to feather boa. Note that it’s part of her identity, too.)

Bull Weed happens to meet the very down-and-out Wensel after robbing a bank, and is recognized by him. Thinking fast to escape the police, he forces Wensel into the getaway car and takes him to his hideaway. Soon realizing that the drunken man is actually deeply intelligent and eloquent, Bull decides to keep him around, nicknaming him Rolls Royce.

In time Rolls Royce recovers from alcoholism, although now he’s involved in the underworld–inadvertently trading a vice for a vice. His debonair appearance catches the eye of Bull’s beautiful girlfriend Feathers, and the two begin falling in love. In the meantime Bull is dealing with the violent rival gangster “Buck” Mulligan. When Buck goes too far by trying to prey on Feathers, Bull ends up killing him and is imprisoned. A judge sentences him to death, and out of loyalty Rolls Royce and Feathers decide to try and spring him from jail.

The cast is simply perfection. George Bancroft plays the crass Bull Weed, one of several types of tough characters he played in the 1920s, like the title role of The Wolf of Wall Street (1929). Sultry beauty Evelyn Brent, a film actress since 1915 and a former WAMPAS Baby Star, plays Feathers with a worldly reserve, more posh than “out there” in her ritzy outfits. British actor Clive Brook, a Paramount Star for much of the ’20s, is simply excellent as the former drunk turned dapper gangster, easily holding his own against Bancroft’s big personality. Props should also go to Larry Semon as Bull’s associate–naturally he adds some touches of comic relief, which seem to come almost too easily for him. I would’ve liked to see him pop up more, especially in some dramatic scenes.

Lovers of great cinematography will find Underworld a visual feast, even if they aren’t familiar with silents. Gunshots let loose clouds of brick dust, party scenes drip with streamers, dark staircases are lit from Expressionist angles. Von Sternberg isn’t afraid to add an avant-garde touch or two, such as a shot where the camera tips backwards as a character’s socked in the face, or a rapid montage of the various smiling partygoers at the New Year’s ball.

Masterful at showing without telling, the subtle acting of the three stars keeps us absorbed in their characters’ changing relationships, marked in turns by passion, jealousy and guilt. It has a climactic shootout scene with tommyguns blazing that’s worthy of being ranked alongside its 1930s counterparts. And the finale might make some viewers recall a similar scene in the classic Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

Underworld is readily available on YouTube and other online resources, but it was also released by Criterion Collection with an excellent soundtrack. And if there’s ever a movie theater screening near you it’s well worth seeing in all its smoky, elegantly-lit glory–and I’d bring along one of those friends who insist they’re “not into silents,” too.

5 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “Underworld” (1927)

  1. I’ve always loved the smoky, downtrodden romanticism of this movie’s atmosphere. I’ve always loved the screen presence of Evelyn Brent, the suggestion of passion lurking beneath her cynical sneer. It’s a shame her career would die out with the coming of sound– she seems to be a shoe-in for the nastiness of pre-code Hollywood.

  2. This is the one film in which I like Clive Brook. Hard to believe Dietrich carried a torch for him in ‘Shanghai Express.’

    Yes indeed, Bancroft had a BIG personality. Sternberg wrote that he directed Bancroft to fall down the stairs after the first shot. But Bancroft kept climbing until the 3rd shot. He explained to an exasperated Sternberg that it took more than one shot to kill him. Sternberg solved the ‘problem’ by cutting out shots 2 and 3 and jump cutting to his fall.

    Bancroft is also superb in ‘On the Docks of New York.’

    • “This is the one film in which I like Clive Brook. Hard to believe Dietrich carried a torch for him in ‘Shanghai Express.’”

      I’ve always felt the same. In SE, he’s such a wet blanket, but here he’s got a kind of weary glamor.

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