Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Underworld (Josef von Sternberg) ****

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Cast: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook, Fred Kohler, Larry Semon

Background: One of the early admirers of Sternberg was none other than Charlie Chaplin, who enjoyed Sternberg's directing debut, The Salvation Hunters. Sternberg was quickly snapped up by Paramount pictures, who asked him to take over directing duties on a gangster film called Underworld, where he would replace fired director Arthur Rosson.

Story: Bull Weed (Bancroft) is the toughest gangster in town and he likes to let people know it. One way he does this is to protect a lowly drunk (Brook) from the threats of a rival gangster. He helps the man (who now has the nickname "Rolls Royce") get back on his feet, and makes him one of his few trusted lieutenants. A problem arises when Bull's girlfriend Feathers (Brent) and Rolls Royce begin to fall for each other, but both are conflicted because of their loyalty to Bull.

Thoughts: The first thing I must point out is that Bull Weed is a fantastic character; a true badass on the level of the best of Cagney and Eastwood. There's a great early scene that illustrates this so well. After a confrontation with a rival gangster, Bull sends his few allies away. All by himself, he walks back into the bar and stares right at the gangster and his several accomplices, knowing that none of them have the courage to take him on. After all, he's Bull Weed. Bancroft completely sells the gravitas of this character, but what makes this movie great are not just the badass moments, but the fascinating complexities in this story of loyalty and ethics. The three main characters (especially Bull and Feathers) could easily be developed as stereotypes, but von Sternberg's direction and Ben Hecht's writing probes the emotional conflicts each of these characters are facing. There's even some fun wordplay in this silent film (ex. "I was framed!" - "What are you, a picture?") Bancroft, Brent, and Brook are completely convincing at every step and make for one of the few movie love triangles where you're really not rooting against anyone. The brilliant twists in the third act amp up the moral dilemma faced by Rolls Royce and Feathers, and the fantastic resolution to this dilemma could only be sold by filmmakers and actors working at the very top of their craft.

Postscript: The studio thought this was going to be a bomb, so it only started with a very small release. Screenwriter Ben Hecht even asked to have his name removed from the credits. Good word of mouth eventually made this movie a success, and Hecht would go on to win an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Von Sternberg would go on to a long and successful directing career, often pairing up with Marlene Dietrich. We will definitely be visiting many more works of his in the coming years. This film helped define Bancroft as a classic tough guy, and he would play off that image in future films with characters such as Cannoball Casey, Two-Gun Nolan, and Thunderbolt Jim Lang. He continued acting through 1942, including supporting roles in Angels with Dirty Faces and Stagecoach. BRent made a remarkably successful transition to sound and would continue acting (often in Von Sternberg films) through the 40's. Clive Brook also had a successful career, including several appearances as Sherlock Holmes.

No comments: