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.