Paramount Famous Lasky Corp.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
New York Premiere: October 20, 1927
Cast: George Bancroft ("Bull" Weed), Clive Brook ("Rolls-Royce"), Evelyn Brent ("Feathers"), Larry Semon ("Slippy" Lewis), Fred Kohler ("Buck" Mulligan), Helen Lynch (Mulligan's girl), Jerry Mandy (Paloma), Karl Morse ("High Collar" Sam)

by Dean Thompson

Maybe you've seen, during the wee hours on TCM, a 1925 studio tour of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It's a sweet little film, touchingly youthful and a bit gawky as it parades its luminaries and technicians who make the silver screen sparkle. For the purpose of this commentary, let's cut to a pan shot of the resident directors. All's good humor as they grin at the camera and josh with one another: William Wellman, Fred Niblo, King Vidor, Tod Browning -- even Erich von Stroheim looks, for him, glacially convivial. And cross-armed in their midst (actually a bit below it, since he's the shortest of the bunch), lord of his own space, stands the glowering Josef von Sternberg, daring the viewer to salaam and grovel. In his Seductive Cinema, James Card amusingly links these two men: "Although Austrian-born Joe Stern had been an American much longer than Stroheim, he now shared with his fellow Austrian immigrant two useful items: a spurious 'von' and a hustler's realization that insecure Hollywood provided Elysian fields for the con artist. In a community where hundreds were ever smiling and assenting, hoping to find places in the explosively expanding film world, Joe Stern set out to present himself as the meanest, nastiest and most insulting individual on the West Coast."

But if von Sternberg was no warm fuzzy -- MGM wasted little time in dropping him from its roster-he was far more von than con, as Paramount Studios realized to its credit in snapping him up. His three surviving Paramount silents, as well as the six films made in the thirties with Marlene Dietrich, are not always great art, but they're ever the work of a peerless auteur, perhaps the finest master of composition, and especially light and shade, whom Hollywood has ever seen. (As far as I know, von Sternberg was the only full-time director who was also a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.) You have to take von Sternberg on his own terms: his films are at points willful, absurd, self-indulgent, and even hilarious. But check left brain at the door, and they become spellbinding, often jaw-dropping, in their intensity (especially true of The Last Command, with the magisterial Emil Jannings, made in 1928-you can read Paul Rice's superb commentary on that film here), beauty (try the end of Morocco, when Dietrich ditches her shoes to follow Gary Cooper into the desert as winds sigh softly across the sands), and surrealism (the drop-dead moment in Blonde Venus when Dietrich emerges from a gorilla suit. Don't ask questions, just pour a glass of pinot grigio and see for yourself).

All this is to say that Underworld, von Sternberg's first effort for Paramount, released in 1927 to wild acclaim and box-office stampedes and a template for the gangster epics made by Warner Brothers in the thirties, is by turns blistering and beautiful and a tad silly. Legendary newspaperman-turned-screenwriter Ben Hecht had written the titular story, which was to garner him an Academy Award and which is included in the booklet for the von Sternberg collection (Underworld, The Last Command, and The Docks of New York) from Criterion. I would counsel reading the story only after you've seen the film. Hecht's lean, hard-boiled prose, evocative of pulp writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler's work in its narrative muscularity, startles with its grit and point. As fine as von Sternberg's film is, one understands why Hecht hated it.

The florid intertitle that opens the film might have given Hecht pause --

A great city in the dead of night . . . streets lonely, moon-flooded . . . buildings empty as the cliff-dwellings of a forgotten age --

-- but the shots that follow seem promising enough: bank windows shattering from an explosion within, a rapid exit with the loot in a getaway car, police cars and motorcycles pouring from a nearby station, all done with stark lighting and precise editing. It would seem that documentary realism is not far away.

Five minutes later, once we're ushered into Dreamland, an archetypal speakeasy setting beloved of pulp fiction and gangster films, The Woman enters, and here's where the jig is up -- rather, here's where Hecht might have turned purple and where von Sternberg aficionados now sigh happily. The beautiful Evelyn Brent plays "Feathers" McCoy, sheathed in a feather-lined coat and topped with a white feather boa. Geoffrey O'Brien, in his Criterion essay on the film, sets up an interesting hypothesis:

To identify the character with the garment is a means of shifting the spectator to the plane of perception where, for von Sternberg, the real narrative action unfolds, the level where cloth and flesh and glint of eye, texture and curvature and depth of shadow, outweigh the plot points that serve merely to direct us toward those effects. This is not to say that he indulges in meaningless abstraction but that he arrives through abstraction at the deep story, the inward story, for which the outer is camouflage. At the heart of the fake is the real.
As Feathers bends at the top of the stairs to adjust her stocking, a loose feather [floats] down. The way the movement of a single feather seizes hold of our perception establishes the unique flavor of von Sternberg's film world. This feather, and nothing else, will be the center of the universe for as long as he decrees. The peculiar undulant beauty of its movement, the power of its compressed
radiance: such things are not incidents but essence.

We are, in short, slaves to von Sternberg's gallery of beauty-as-essence. Hecht minded. I don't, and you may not either. Relationships, not crime, comprise the heart of this film: Bluff Chicago gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft), virtually a one-man operation, takes a down-on-his-luck intellectual (Clive Brook) under his wing and cleans him up, nicknaming him Rolls-Royce. Tensions ensue because of a growing attraction between Rolls-Royce and Feathers, Bull's paramour, and the stage is set for a host of conflicts as loyalty, desire, suspicion, guilt, and magnanimity bubble to the surface. There's a peripheral subplot, a fight for dominion between Bull and rival gangland leader Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler), but it ends soon and violently enough.

The strengths of Underworld are easy to discern:

*The crime sequences, tightly shot and edited, spare and even brutal in their veracity, are about as fine as anything from the Depression-era Warners: Public Enemy, Scarface, Little Caesar, The Roaring Twenties, etc. I've mentioned the bank robbery at the beginning. A later jewelry store heist hits just as hard, all shattering glass and close-up of a snatched necklace. The starkest moment may be when Bull bursts into Mulligan's flower shop in the dead of night and pumps five bullets into him before Mulligan falls before a floral cross ironically emblazoned with "Rest in Peace." These sequences, and especially the final half-hour, when Bull is trapped in his hideaway as the cops close in (an ending echoed in Hawks's Scarface in 1932), the ever-growing shadows underscoring his paranoia, are pure film noir, as sinister and brooding as any elements that would emerge in the works of Lang and Siodmak two decades later.

*Clive Brook, as Rolls-Royce, and Evelyn Brent as Feathers. If you know Brook from his other film with von Sternberg, Shanghai Express (1932), you wonder what Dietrich ever saw in him there, for he's a glum, brilliantined stick. Here, in his alcoholic stupor early on, he conveys both self-abasement and dignity; once he's cleaned up, he's by turns teasing, conflicted, resolute, and patrician, his sensitive face (like Brent's) always pliable to the director's demands. Brent's Feathers may well be the most fully realized female in all the von Sternberg silents. Oh, there are the requisite beauty shots with feathers or cigarette smoke or, in the gangland ball scene, confetti artfully sprinkled in her lush hair. (I like the term that Rice coins for such moments: "Von Sternberg was a regular at the Altar of The Female in Repose, and no one lounges as magnificently as Evelyn Brent." That's laser-beam writing.) But here is a multi-layered performance. In her early incarnation at Dreamland, she's a moll of icy hauteur, her chiseled face inscrutable. When she's left with Rolls-Royce at his apartment, she gradually drops that persona as they trade glances that move from curiosity to teasing amusement to desire. Note the moment when they are about to kiss: Brook holds Brent's shoulders as he gently reestablishes boundaries, his face both kind and fatalistic as he shakes his head. The stunning close-up of Brent, conveying her shame, is as raw and vulnerable as anything von Sternberg ever put on the screen. She oscillates between desire and fear, loyalty and yearning, for the remainder of the film, pitch perfect in each scene, aided in no small part by Underworld's greatest strength:

*von Sternberg's camera. You'll notice the noir configuration of light and shadow that I mentioned earlier. You'll notice the rapid montage of faces at the gangland ball as hilarity, abandon, and decadence rule the night. But we come to von Sternberg for the close-ups that define cinema magic, as Card notes in Seductive Cinema:

Along with his growing concern for composition, in his early Paramount films Sternberg discovered what would become his most powerful trademark, overshadowing even his long, long dissolves and his crowded, overwhelmingly detailed frames. It was his close-ups.
The usual Hollywood close-up was a head and shoulders portrait. The Russian close-up was a dynamic, full-frame face, often cropping off the top of the head and the neck of the subjects. But the Sternberg close-up was something of a mystical experience for the beholder, particularly if the subject was a woman. He usually had his actress smoking a cigarette. The translucent, drifting clouds of smoke wrapped the girl in a shimmering haze. Sternberg understood lighting better than any other director. He understood his camera lenses better than many a cinematographer. Any ordinary actress caught in Joe's idealizing compositions and his caressing lighting glowed like Garbo at her best.

I'll mention one such iconic shot in Underworld. At the gangland ball, when Feathers pleads with Rolls-Royce to stop drinking, there's a close-up of their profiles as she looks up at him in appeal, the feathers in her boa waving gently. Suddenly Brent's eyes catch the light, and they become stars. Really, stars. You catch your breath at the incandescence of the moment. Do such close-ups belong in the middle of a gangster picture? Probably not, if we're looking for congruence, but reason has tottered on far worse grounds.

If I've saved George Bancroft's Bull Weed and Fred Kohler's Mulligan for last, it's that, for my money, they pull the picture down; I hasten to add, however, that the fault may not lie with these actors or with von Sternberg. Many of us come to Underworld having been weaned on the Warner epics, with accrued impressions appertaining thereto. Cagney, Raft, Bogart, Muni, and even Robinson (in his early days) were all rather compact men, moving with speed on the balls of their feet. Bancroft and Kohler are big and burly; they may well have confirmed what audiences of 1927 imagined gang lords to be. But the many close-ups of Kohler, sweating and muttering and scowling like King Kong, evoke more amusement than fear; and the beefy and boisterous Bancroft, supersized in every respect as he stomps through the film, reminds me rather too much of Foghorn Leghorn. Your mileage may vary.

But oh, those close-ups, and whoo, those shoot-ups. It's a heady mixture, not without some lumps, and scintillating. After viewing Underworld, I had to return to that MGM studio tour for another look at glowering little von Sternberg, hell-bent on creating his own mythology. He was called every name in the book, most of them profane. But the man could deliver, unforgettably. As "The End" fades out in any of his best films, one agrees with Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "'tis true this parting was well made."

copyright 2014 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved.

Return to the "Underworld" page