I just got back from the annual silent film screening at the Maryland Film Festival, held at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore. This year's film was "Underworld", accompanied with an excellent score by the Alloy Orchestra.
Josef von Sternberg's career was launched, after one or two false starts, with the splendid gangster film, "Underworld", produced at Paramount Pictures in 1927. The film is the prototypical gangster film, spawning a whole series of pictures that would really flourish in the early years of the following decade, when the technological introduction of sound in film gave whole new possibilities to the genre.
Watching a silent gangster film such as this one, or Lewis Milestone's The Racket from the following year, it can be difficult to remember that at the time, audiences didn't have films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy to compare it against. Those films so completely formed the gangster film, with the gangster-slang dialog, machine gun rattle and police sirens on the soundtrack. Watching Underworld, it's easy to imagine it as a sound film. In fact, this is a criticism of Sternberg's silent work in general that I've read in several different sources. Ironically, his sound films, especially The Scarlet Empress, had an amazingly fluid camera style and stylized design that link them with the best techniques of the silent era.
It's also a good example of how a completely routine story can be greatly enhanced by the style and visual flourishes of the director. There was one bit in particular that stood out to me. Just after the main gangster, Bull Weed (played by George Bancroft) has gone on a rampage, he holes up in his apartment, trying to decide what to do next, and as he is thinking, gently feeds a stray kitten some milk that has just been delivered. It's a seemingly minor touch, but is a great, subtle character moment in the middle of the film that allows the audience to feel sympathy for him.
The performances were quite good, particularly Clive Brook, who delivered an incredible performance in Cavalcade, one of my very favorite films. It was also a treat to see silent screen comedian Larry Semon in a rare, semi-dramatic supporting role.
There were moments of the film that really stood out as examples of silent film technique at its finest: the opening shot, of a clock reading "2:00 am" superimposed over a giant skyscraper and the camera moves during the scene in which the two gangsters confront eachother at the nightclub. There was also an interesting but brief montage of the various underworld characters gathered at the annual party, with the shots growing increasingly frantic and more chaotic.
The score was provided by the Alloy Orchestra, who always provide fine accompaniment to the silent films shown at the Maryland Film Festival, and this was no exception. The score really captured the energy of the film without being overpowering, and also captured the lighter moments quite well.