(director: Josef Von Sternberg; screenwriters: from a story by Ben Hecht/Robert N. Lee; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; cast: George Bancroft (“Bull” Weed), Clive Brook (“Rolls Royce”), Evelyn Brent (“Feathers” McCoy), Larry Semon (“Slippy” Lewis), Fred Kohler (“Buck” Mulligan), Helen Lynch (Mulligan’s Girl), Jerry Mandy (Paloma), Karl Morse (“High Collar” Sam); Runtime: 85; Grapevine Video Release; 1927-silent)
“Considered to be the first modern gangster film, where the criminals are the antihero heroes.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Considered to be the first modern gangster film, where the criminals are the antihero heroes. Underworld was adapted from ex-reporter Ben Hecht’s book, where he uses his experiences covering the Chicago crime scene. Sternberg had a different vision for the film and after the opening chaotic scenes unfolded like a straight crime story, the director changed the reality of the silent film and abandoned Hecht’s version. Sternberg gave this film a blend of realism, German expressionism and Hollywood sentimentality. The evidence of Sternberg’s rich imagination begins with the gangster’s ball scene.
The film opens by introducing the bank robber Bull Weed (George Bancroft). He robs a bank by dynamiting it and before driving away gives a blind beggar some money. The now down-and-out former lawyer called Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) witnessed the robbery in his drunken condition, and when discovered convinced Bull that he’s no squealer.
Bull’s sweetie pie is Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent). Sitting in their favorite bar, Dreamland, the couple meets the drunk again when they witness him being humiliated by a rival of Bull’s called Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler). He wants to impress the sexy Feathers that he doesn’t care about money, as he’s second fiddle to Bull in this town and lusts after what Bull has–especially the Feathers dame. So he throws a $10 bill in the spittoon and orders the alcoholic janitor, Rolls Royce, to pick it up or else he’ll kill him. Bull comes to the rescue and gives Rolls Royce a large stake to clean himself up. He soon realizes that Rolls Royce is an intellectual, and he hires him to plan their robberies and be the brains of the organization. This works out fine, as Bull is even more successful than before and becomes the uncrowned king of the Chicago underworld.
In one robbery, Rolls Royce has Bull drop a flower at the crime scene in order to frame Buck Mulligan. Buck, as a front for his criminal activities, owns a flower shop.
Rolls Royce moves into Bull’s hideout, and falls in love with Feathers and she gradually falls in love with him. But he’s too grateful for what Bull did for him to carry out this love. At the annual underworld’s ball, where everyone attending has a prison record, jealousy and rage erupt. In the middle of all the party favors, as confetti and streamers fill the dance hall, Bull bawls Rolls Royce out for dancing with his girl, and soon gets so drunk he’s passed out. This gives Buck a chance to attack the helpless Feathers. But Buck’s jealous girlfriend (Helen Lynch) wakes Bull up and he comes to Feathers rescue by killing Buck.
Sentenced to hang for the murder and hearing rumors about his girl being with Rolls Royce, the climactic scenes show how Bull breaks out of prison and returns to his hideout seeking revenge. Here he confronts Rolls Royce and Feathers and finds that they remained faithful to him; and, most importantly, he learns something about himself that he didn’t know before. Bull discovers his deeper feelings, as he decides to give himself up to the police.
Bull was portrayed as a burly, physical man with complex emotions. He always wanted to elevate Feathers in stature and enjoyed doing it in a crass way, as he gave her jewelry as presents. That Bull could be generous as well as ruthless and had a laugh that could fill a room with his giant personality, made him a villain who was not one-dimensional.
During its time this was an edgy film, but the times have changed and its story doesn’t hold up as well today. It’s a film that is mostly interesting for its historical contribution to cinema, as it set the conventions for this genre. It is also a visually challenging film, as Sternberg filled the screen with symbols and imagery it had never seen before. This changed the way gangster films were made, and the visuals of this film are still considered to be innovative and stylish.
Some critics have classified this as an example of film noir mainly because of all the alienation and corruption shown. But it’s not like the shadowy film noir of the 1940s.
Interestingly enough, at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, the film received its only award for story writer Ben Hecht. Hecht gladly accepted the award, even though he complained about the finished film when it first came out and wanted his name taken off the credits.
REVIEWED ON 8/20/2001 GRADE: B-