Saturday, August 02, 2014

Underworld (1927)

Josef von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film prefigures the "classic" Warner Bros. gangster films of the early '30s, both in terms of plot and characterizations, to an astonishing degree, although it was one of several such films that appeared around the time (Lewis Milestone's THE RACKET being another example).

The plot centers around a romantic triangle between gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft), his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent), and reformed alcoholic lawyer "Rolls Royce" (Clive Brook), whom Bull had rescued from the gutter. Bull is so busy defending his Chicago gangland territory that he hardly realizes what is transpiring between his girlfriend and the lawyer until it's too late. The resulting tensions culminate in an exciting finale in which Bull, holed up in his apartment, shoots it out with the cops before having a change of heart after learning of Feathers' true affection for him.

Despite its rather soft ending, the film boasts an excellent script by Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht, who won an Academy Award for his work. Featuring stunning cinematography by Bert Glennon, shot with characteristic Paramount high-gloss, UNDERWORLD is a key work in the formation of the gangster film, and a triumph of style under Sternberg's direction.

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