Underworld ★★★★

Interesting to watch an early gangster movie unvarnished by Warner Brothers' social commentary. No doubt Von Sternberg's film is foundational in establishing the public's fascination with the extravagance and panache of the gangster lifestyle. Gangsters may be thieves and killers, but the film constructs a clear division between the noble Bull Weed (George Bancroft) and the vicious Buck Mulligan (Frank Kohler). Bull is the kind of guy who will throw a few dollars at a beggar on the way out of a heist and lets a hungry kitty lick milk off his finger. Ben Hecht, who provided the original material for the screenplay, reportedly disliked Von Sternberg's touches of sentiment. Hecht won an Oscar for Best Original Story, nevertheless, and went on to write Scarface for Howard Hawks. But, in truth, the gangster lifestyle only interests Von Sternberg as a landscape in which he can explore the emotional lives of his characters, which is one reason why this film feels less dated than many of the thirties Warner Gangster movies. We don't, for example, get a clear picture of Bull's criminal network, which must be extensive, or his position in it. The focus is on the friendship and evolving love triangle between himself, Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), the drunken but suave intellectual he drags out of the gutter, and his moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent). It is the subtext beneath and between the action which is significant: that is the 'Underworld' which interests Von Sternberg. Hence, the scene of a feather floating into Rolls's hand as a signal of Feathers entering his life and his change in fortunes; and the montage of distorted reflections in a mirror at the gangster party. It is Von Sternberg exercising his symbolic style; he would become much more private and impenetrable as he matured, but the surface action in this film is complemented by the exquisite compositions and art direction. Thus, we get a template gangster cornered in a building by the cops, with machine guns blazing, and glass, wood and brick flying in all directions. So, if one is like Hecht, who probably hated the sentimental ending, there are still enough thrills to get one through.

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