Underworld U.S.A. (1961, Samuel Fuller)

Gangster revenge flick, featuring:

– one of those hilariously drawn-out hero death scenes, in which after being shot he manages to stagger a few blocks down the street in order to die in the alley where his old man was killed
– an extremely low-security gangster operation which, despite having a stranglehold on the city, seems to consist of four bosses and maybe six underlings
– a hard but charismatic mother-figure in the vein of Moe from Pickup on South Street
– a hit-man who puts on his dad’s heavy plastic sunglasses whenever he kills someone
– big broad facial expressions and poster-ready obvious compositions that make you want to smack yourself in the head, like the one below in which Cuddles is telling Tolly that she wants to get married and have babies
– just a mountain of serious powerful awesomeness

Young Tolly gets punched in the eye by another kid for not sharing the loot he stole from a drunk, giving him the scar over his eyebrow that lets us know he will grow into Cliff Robertson (Three Days of the Condor, lately Peter Parker’s murdered grandpa in Raimi’s Spider-man series). He runs to Sandy’s place and sees some gangsters beating a dude to death in silhouette – the dude is Tolly’s dad! T. identified local gangster Vic Farrar as one of the shadows, but doesn’t rat to investigating agent Driscoll (Larry Gates, whose final film was Leonard Part 6, but held more distinguished roles in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and In the Heat of the Night). It is new year’s eve and the boy’s father has been killed, so the soundtrack plays a slow, minor-key version of “Auld Lang Syne” – greatness!

That’s Tolly’s dad in the middle:

Sandy with Driscoll, after the killing:

Thirteen years later, three of the four shadows are running the most powerful crime organization in the city: Gela (below left: Paul Dubov of Shock Corridor, Verboten) the “dope king”, Smith (center: Allan Gruener) on labor and Gunther (right: Gerald Milton of China Gate, Forty Guns) on prostitution (didn’t think I’d hear the phrase “the recruitment of schoolgirls into the ranks of prostitution” in a 1961 movie) under big (literally big) boss Connors (Robert Ernhardt of 3:10 to Yuma). And Driscoll is the main prosecutor trying to bring them down.

Tolly is still a thief, now with a long police record, but somehow he turned out unusually smart. In prison he gets himself close to Vic in the sick ward and coerces a confession. Now Tolly’s just gotta get out of prison (no jailbreaks; it’s a short sentence) and murder the most notorious crooks in town.

Back outside, he accidentally runs into the gang’s hitman Gus (Richard Rust of Comanche Station), a ruthless killer who’s inadvertently hilarious with his sunglasses ritual. Tolly saves a girl named Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), and hides her away while he gets in good with the baddies by voluntarily giving back the drugs he’d stolen off Gus.

Gus, about to do some murderin’:

Fuller is fully engaged with this one, packing more than enough intense action into his revenge tale. Gus runs over a little girl, the corrupt police chief is taken away by Driscoll and the gang is turned against itself – all accompanied by newspaper headlines, of course. It has its talky, overexplainy moments, filling us in on how organized crime works so we can better appreciate its danger and root for our anti-hero as he racks up dead bodies and dirty deeds. Ultimately, Tolly can’t get away clean with the girl, so he catches a bullet after drowning Connors in his own gigantic pool. Fuller makes this ending sounds like his own idea, and not a studio-imposed production-code move, since he writes: “My final shot closes in tight on Tolly’s clenched fist, dying proof of a life filled with hate and frustration.” The studio did cut his proposed opening about a prostitute union organizer getting her head blown off, but he sounds very pleased with the way the picture turned out.

The guy who shoots Tolly at the end is Neyle Morrow, who acted in more Fuller films than anyone – at least 14 of them!

“My lead’s anarchistic attitude owes a debt to Jean Genet… whose writings were deeply rebellious against society and its conventions. … For Genet, moral concepts are absurd.”

“I wanted to go beyond classical gangster movies like Public Enemy and Scarface to talk about alienation and corruption, inspired more by Greek drama.”

“I wanted to show how gangsters are no longer thugs but respectable, tax-paying executives.”

W.W. Dixon in Senses of Cinema:
“The idea of organised crime as a business was a novelty when Fuller made the film, but as the events of the past half-century have made manifestly clear, this is precisely how the underworld operates, hiding in plain sight under a cloak of false respectability.”

“[Tolly’s] only real opposition comes from Gus, the mob’s enforcer, who is a solid professional ready to kill anyone, even a little girl, to do his boss’s bidding. But as V. F. Perkins astutely noted, Gus, who dons dark shades before each “hit”, is simply a working stiff, devoid of personal involvement; it is Tolly who is the real psychopath of the film. And yet, Fuller seems to argue, it takes a psychotic personality devoid of even a shred of humanity to bring down an operation so venal, so utterly rotten that only inhuman force can destroy it; Tolly is the avenging angel for not only his father, but for society as well. The government man, Driscoll, never really questions Tolly’s tactics or motives; if this is what it takes, then so be it.”