This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!
When I tell people I watch silent films, I always get a strange look, like, Oh dear why would you do that? They seem to think silent movies are boring, not interesting, maybe even dull to the modern viewer and nobody would bother watching them.
Well, I invite you to watch Underwold with me and at the end you’ll tell me what you think.
Underworld is considered the first gangster movie in the history of Hollywood and it did set the standard for the genre. Funny to think when it first came out seemed like everyone thought it was going of be a failure.
Screenwritier Ben Hecht even attempt to have his name removed from the credits. He was a former Chicago newpaperman and this certainly coloured his idea of stories. He knew gangland Chicago very well, having covered many of those stories and to him the adaptation of his script by director Josef Von Sternberg was much too romantic and unrealistic. Von Sternberg (who in the 1930s became famous for his collaboration with Marlene Dietrich at Paramount) was very unsure about the film himself to the point he skipped the premier and sent his wife to see how the film fared instead.
Well, the film was a huge success. Paramount had to offered it in more cinemas than they originally planned and longer, and fortunately for Hecht, is name was never removed from the credits, because that year (1927) he won the ‘oscar’ for Best Original Screen Story at the first Academy Award.
So, is the film that good?UNDERWORLD is considered one of the first examples of gangster movies. Exciting plot, relatable… Click To Tweet
“Bull” Weed is a powerful gangster in a big city and as such he has enemies. One of these is Buck Mulligan from a rival gang. One night, they found themselves together at the Dreamland Café (clearly a speakeasy) and while trying to catch the attention of Feathers, Bull’s girlfriend, Mulligan humiliate Rolls Royce, who works as cleaner in the club. Rolls Royce resists Mulligan’s taunting and this attracts Bull’s attention. Bull sides with Rolls Royce with the clear intent of making fun of Mulligan, who swears vengeance on him.
Rolls Royce is a reformed alcoholic and a former lawyer. Bull’s offers him a new life, set him up in one of his old hideouts and this allows Rolls Royce’s true self come resurface. Rolls Royce is so grateful to Bull that he helps him framed Mulligan.
While Bull is out for his heist, Rolls Royce and Feathers wait in the hideout and a feeling slowly blooms between them.
In a way, Hecht was right. This is more a film about love, loyalty and betrayal than about gangsters, and as a story of redemption is probably true it’s unlikely. But the universal message holds. Simple as the plot is, it is dense with emotions, and the relationship among the characters, especially the three main ones, is complex and involving, what really enthralled me as a watcher.
The three main characters are indeed unlikely when placed in the historical set of Chicago gangland, but as characters in a story they work perfectly well, in my opinion. They all have a goal and they all have to fight to reach that goal. They act and react realistically. They all go though a journey that change them – for the better, being this clearly a story of redemption.
I’m very impressed with the acting of all three actors. They managed to create multifaceted characters relying mostly on expression, which was greatly helped by Von Sternberg’s preference for close-ups and his emphasis on expression and eye movements. There’s so much in the way characters look to each other or their eyes follow each other’s movements, the way they focus their attention.
The scene where Bull is convicted is a perfect example: Bull is in the courtroom, listening to his sentence, and his eyes move continuously from the judge speaking his future to Feathers and Rolls Royce sitting side by side. That’s when he realises the bond between them. Fantastic.
“Bull” Weed (George Bancroft). It would be hard for me to tell who the protagonist of this film is, but there’s no doubt Bull is the more complex of the three main characters. He’s a gangster who robs and kills (and we see him doing both in the film) and still he’s also a man who helps if he sees something worthwhile in a person.
There is a little scene at the beginning of the film, when Bull brings Feathers to the old hideout. As they are entering the building, Bulls notices a boy stealing an apple from a stall, so he walks over and catches the boy. He takes the apple from him and tells him, “Don’t you know stealing is wrong?” Then he gives him money and shoves the boy away. He then does as if to return the apple to the stall, but then reconsiders and eats it.
I think this is Bull’s very essence: he knows inside what’s right, but it does wrong all the same and never repents it. All through the film, he alternates gestures of kindness with gesture of violence and disdain, he seems to care for the people and to care only about himself. He continuously shifts from one mode to the other without ever finding any contradiction in it.
And yes, this is probably unrealistic in the dynamics of historical gangland, but in the dynamic of a story, it’s not only acceptable but even fascinating.
Rolls Royce (Clive Brooks). He is the ‘crises’ element in the story, the one disturbing the balance. He was a lawyer once, so he knew and respected the law, he uplifted justice. He knew good from bad. Then he becomes an alcoholic and sinks very low indeed. When he first meets Bull, he enters the gangster’s favours by letting him buying his silence. Rolls Royce is a fallen man.
But Bull gives him a second chance and Rolls Royce does take it, even if he doesn’t realise it. Quitting drinking, he slowly comes back to his old self. He remembers what’s good and what’s bad. Unfortunately, this also means he remembers what loyalty and gratitude are. So, when he falls for Feathers and she for him, he knows he can’t embrace that feeling because Feathers is the girl of the man who ‘picked him up’.
But even if that’s his damnation, his notion of what’s good touches everything around him and set forth the journey for all three main characters.
“Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Well, I may be unsure who the protagonist is but I sure know who’s my favourite character. And if you think women are always weak and helpless in old films, think again!
Although it’s true that Feathers is just the ‘boss’s girlfriend” in the story, and it’s true that her same loyalty keeps her in that position, it’s also true that she does have desires of her own and she fights to make them true. She has a vision of herself as a different person and she strives to achieve that vision.
When she is alone with Rolls Royce the first time, he says to her he is not interested in women, and she clearly think, “Well, we see about that”. When she becomes a victim of her same ploy, since she then sees the goodness in Rolls Royce and falls for him, she embraces that new world. There’s good in her and Rolls Royce awakens it. In the moment he refuses her, she feels ashamed and that’s the beginning of her journey. Just like Rolls Royce, she knows she can’t have what she most desires because that would mean doing wrong to someone who helped her.
But she fights all the same. She wants to see Rolls Royce happy and when she gets the chance, she tries to convince him to just run away together and make their own lives. Except she then steps back when she realises that would mean Bull’s death. “See, you taught me to be decent,” she says to Rolls Royce.
She’s assaulted by men twice and both times she fends for herself, and even in the face of death, she defends what she cares for and the people she loves.
Not the portrayal of a helpless woman, if you ask me.
The entire film is a dance between what these characters want and what they know they can have without becoming traitors. It’s a continuous dance between what’s right and what’s wrong and that’s why, even if the final outcome may not be realistic, it is perfectly acceptable and meaningful in the logic of the story.
I’ll say it here and now: I love the aesthetics of black and white films. The contrast of shadows and lights, the designs light creates among shadows. The straight lines dividing black and white fields on the screen.
Part of my enjoyment of the film comes from here. A native Austrian, Von Strenberg went back to Europe during WWI and after the war he worked both in America and Europe in the film industry. I believe he was no stranger to Expressionism and it shows in this film. Shadows are always used to express something, they are never there for the sake of good looking. Sometimes shadows play part of the story.
I particularly like the scene in the courtroom where Feathers and Rolls Royce sit together, listening to the sentence, and on the white wall behind them we can see the dark shadow of the judge speaking Bull’s sentence.
I also like the final sequence with the shootout. It’s night, it’s dark and there’s smoke from the weapons and dust from the destruction everywhere. Everything is shadow and smoke as the characters’ emotions are shaken and reshaped.
So yes, Underworld is really a good film. Try it. I’m quite sure you’ll like it.
Only the Cinema – Underworld (1927)
San Francisco Silent Film Festival – Underwolrd (1927)
Sense of Cinema – Underworld
The Same Film Every Night – Dawn of the blockbuster: the gangster classic ‘Underworld’ released 86 years ago today
Dreamland Café – Underworld