Upon its release in August 1927, Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld caught Paramount off guard by becoming a proto-blockbuster. The movie was originally booked at a single cinema in New York for just a week; the theater had to scramble to add midnight showings to accommodate the unexpected audience demand, and Paramount hastily extended the run at another cinema. It’s fun to imagine how sensational the word-of-mouth around town must have been in that long-ago era, 80 years before Twitter.
The script for Underworld boasts a notable surfeit of talent: Originally a story by Chicago journalist Ben Hecht, who was soon to become one of the leading screenwriters of Hollywood’s golden age, the screenplay was then worked on by not just George Marion, Jr. (who wrote the titles for It the same year), but an uncredited von Sternberg and Howard Hawks as well.
Underworld’s depiction of urban America offers a seductive vision of a recognizably “modern,” 20th-century U.S. city — Chicago or New York, with speakeasies and gangsters, flappers and tommy guns — filtered through a European-born aesthete’s sensibility. The visuals of the city by night are haunted by German Expressionism, with the result that the atmosphere is somehow both exotic and stylized yet rip-roaring at the same time.
The story opens with a bank window exploding, and the robber Bull Weed (George Bancroft) making his getaway with the loot. The only witness is a disheveled bum (Clive Brooks), who shows a flash of wit: “The great Bull Weed, closing another account.” This inspires Bull Weed to bring the drunkard back to his hideout, where he can buy his silence. The bum earns the nickname Rolls Royce, and Bull Weed resolves to get this fellow back on his feet.
Cut to a speakeasy, memorably dubbed the Dreamland Café, as if to emphasize that we’re a step away from realism here. (Would a Jimmy Cagney gangster ever hang out at a joint called the Dreamland Café?) Thanks to Bull Weed, Rolls Royce has landed a gig as a janitor here, and now he can at least walk semi-straight. In strolls Bull Weed’s girl Feathers (Evelyn Brent), a stylized vision of 1920s femininity. She pauses to adjust her garter, and as soon as a strand of her feathery getup floats down the stairs to flutter by Rolls Royce, it’s clear a romantic triangle is in the offing.
Brent imbues Feathers with a chilly erotic hauteur. In scene after scene, the talents of Brent, von Sternberg, costumer Travis Banton and DP Bert Glennon combine to present Feathers as an iconic vamp: in one profile shot, Glennon has set up the lights to shimmer off her eyes, for an effect of almost unearthly silvery glamour. A viewer who thinks ahead to von Sternberg’s 1930s collaborations with Marlene Dietrich can’t help reflecting that this was a man who had no interest in the girl next door.
Some time later, Bull Weed takes Feathers to one of his apartment hideouts to show off his “new” Rolls Royce: the former alcoholic and janitor, now looking like he just stepped out of a Noel Coward play.
It’s here that the casting of the leads really pays off. For while Bancroft’s performance as blunt, garrulous Bull Weed is relentlessly physical, suggesting outsized appetites (note how often the actor throws his bulk around), English actor Clive Brook is all elegant reserve as the spruced-up Rolls Royce; he frequently lets a single raised eyebrow convey everything about his character. Following Underworld’s release, the three leads found their stock in Hollywood soaring, no surprise given how their performances are lessons in star quality, even today.
The romantic tension between Feathers and Rolls Royce comes to a head in what is perhaps Underworld’s most flamboyant set piece (there are so many to choose from), the gangsters’ ball. The ball is not found in Ben Hecht’s original story, so I’m tempted to assume that it’s the Vienna-born von Sternberg’s own fanciful invention — an institution of his birthplace transposed to 1920s America, only here the attendees are not the elite of the social register but the gangsters and bootleggers who are the city’s true power brokers. An intertitle sets the scene:
The underworld’s annual armistice — when, until dawn, rival gangsters bury the hatchet and park the machine-gun.
“Check your gats!” barks an usher. The city’s underworld is duded up in fancy dress, but it’s a conceit, a mockery of high society — this crew’s brutish nature will come out soon enough.
The festivities descend into mass drunkenness. The titles tell us how “the brutal din of cheap music — booze — hate — lust” turn the ball into “a devil’s carnival,” and von Sternberg gives us a sensational montage of leering, drunken grotesque faces, in and out of focus, that brilliantly conveys the sense of a sordid, sweaty bacchanal. The montage lasts less than 30 seconds, but more than 80 years later it still acts like a shot of pure cinematic adrenalin.
For a collector of modern art who swanned around with a walking stick, von Sternberg knew how to stage action sequences. In the climax of Underworld, he orchestrates a spectacular dead-of-night shootout, with Bull and Feathers holed up in Bull’s apartment hideout as what looks like the entire city police force crouches outside and shoots the apartment to bits. The scene could be an inspiration for the standout moment in Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet 50 years later, when the cops shoot an entire house into ruins to flush out two fugitives.
But for all the bravura violence, it’s the quieter moments during the climax that make the most impression. When Bull makes it to his hideout, footsteps in the hall put him on edge, but it’s only the milkman. Bull scoops up the milk, along with a tiny kitten, which he lets lick milk from his fingertip.
Von Sternberg would later speak disdainfully of this scene, as if embarrassed to have perpetrated such a moment of quasi-kitsch sentimentality, but there’s a reason why Underworld connected with a mass audience, whereas many of von Sternberg’s later films didn’t. (His last couple of movies with Marlene Dietrich start to feel obsessive and hermetic, and it’s no surprise they weren’t hits.) The scene with the kitten tells the viewer that it’s O.K. to like Bull Weed, that for all his vengefulness Bull is really a softie where it counts.
Just the right touch of cornball sentimentality, judiciously applied; maybe that’s how a filmmaker who wants to be an artist in Hollywood protects himself and learns to thrive, then or now. A sentimental romantic streak runs through the improbable climax of Underworld, which is one reason why Ben Hecht asked to have his name taken off the film. His name stayed, so Hecht presumably had mixed feelings when he picked up his Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story — at the first Academy Awards ceremony — for Underworld. Coming from journalism, Hecht had a much more hard-headed, factually based treatment of crime in mind, but Underworld is a poet’s take on gangsters, not a beat reporter’s.