Josef von Sternberg’s pre-code gangster picture ‘Underworld’

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Directed by Josef von Sternberg

United States, 1927

Josef von Sternberg’s pre-code gangster picture – the one that started it all – plays akin to the director’s vision throughout his career: hazy deep focus shots, sensuality that anticipates his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, tough guy theatrics, and an eye for poetic framing.  Though its more name-famous companion piece, Howard Hawks’ Scarface, was produced five years later and during the Production Code, von Sternberg’s film is surprisingly less violent than Hawks’.

Underworld finds von Sternberg staple George Bancroft in the role of “Bull” Weed – gangster extraordinaire.  When Bull happens upon a learned alcoholic itinerant after one of his infamous heists he takes the man under his wing, cleans him up, and nicknames him Rolls Royce (Clive Brook).  Rolls Royce’s suave, quiet manner immediately endears him to “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent), Bull’s girlfriend.  While a precarious love triangle develops, Bull finds himself arrested, and sentenced to hang for a crime of passion.

Similar to his work in later von Sternberg pictures, including the following year’s The Docks of New York, Bancroft’s Bull Weed is a sympathetic portrait of masculinity.  Prone to outbursts of violence, von Sternberg frequently shoots Bull’s trademark smirk in close-up.  The smile is at once violent and endearing, and ultimately iconic.  Bull smirks when he shoots and kills a man, and then gives the same grin when his sentence is passed down.  It hides an array of emotions, and accurately conveys that there is more beneath the surface than what is said.

As he would throughout his career, von Sternberg refuses to adhere to Hollywood standards of the time.  A silent picture, Underworld relies even more heavily on its director’s visual flair than his later films.  Several shots and sequences testify to this.  In a bar fight von Sternberg places his camera in the perspective of a man being punched.  As the aggressor’s fist rifles towards camera, the lens shakes and tilts up, mimicking the effect of the jab to the jaw.  The shot occurs so quickly, and is so clever, that it goes by almost unnoticed.

A later prison sequence is just as stylish.  A wide-shot from Bull’s cell reveals the hallway of the jail in deep focus.  An extra walks along the frame in the far background, simply to emphasize the depth.  Shadows dominate, and the frame-within-a-frame of the cell bars makes this very open shot feel ironically claustrophobic.

As Bull’s hanging, and potential escape become imminent, he sits down to play one last game of checkers with the guard on-duty.  A cut to a close-up on Bull’s hand as it slowly moves through the bars tells the whole story of the moment: is he making a move in the game, or attempting to strangle the guard and expedite his escape?  The close-up lingers, Bull’s hand shakes, and then dramatically goes for the board.  Violence is momentarily averted, but the shot is enough to dramatically shift us into his mindset and prepare us for the inevitable.  When von Sternberg finally does lens Bull choking the guard, the actual violence takes place off-screen.  The camera remains on Bull’s face.  The effect is multi-fold: it avoids redundancy because von Sternberg has already so accurately anticipated the action, we are witness to the range of emotions fully playing out on Bull’s face, and, given that the guard has been friendly to Bull, it allows us to look away in the same manner that Bull likely prefers to.

Bancroft and von Sternberg continue to show off their versatility, and their interpretation of a character whose motivations seem to be beyond money, and to predict the later “Top of the world, Ma” theatrics of the gangster-noir hybrids that would dominate the 30s and 40s.  Having escaped from jail, and finding himself a hunted man, Bull finds a moment of respite in an apartment.  A suspenseful sound at the door reveals a kitten scratching at a jar of milk.  Bull brings both inside, sticks his finger in the milk and allows the kitten to lick it off.  It’s a tender moment, first imagined by legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, and brought to fruition by actor and director.  This moment of calm amidst the storm is a summary of a multifaceted character and picture.


– Neal Dhand

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