Underworld (1927, Josef von Sternberg)

Mulligan (Fred Kohler of a couple other Sternberg features) is a mean-ass gangster who tries to make a poor drunk pick a tenner out of a spitoon. Funny, since earlier this week Katy and I watched Rio Bravo, in which the same thing happens. Like in Rio Bravo, the poor drunk turns out to be one of our heroes – the smart and loyal Rolls Royce (Clive Brook, an early Sherlock Holmes, also in The Four Feathers). Unlike Rio Bravo, the guy who saves him isn’t the sheriff but another gangster making a show of power: the giddy, reckless Bull Weed (George Bancroft, the marshall in Stagecoach) in front of his lady, pouty Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent, a cult member in The Seventh Victim, also in a couple of “anti-Mormon propaganda films”).

Bull and his Feathers:

pre-reform Rolls Royce:

Rolls joins Bull’s gang (which seems to consist of himself and some comedian (played by Larry Semon, formerly a hugely successful comic but on his way to an early grave when he appeared in this). Rolls is a big help, giving his boss valuable tactical advice, but he’s transparently falling in love with Feathers. The boss goes to prison, sentenced to death for shooting down Mulligan in his own flower shop. He escapes with vengeance on his mind, but ultimately decides to surrender himself and let Feathers and Rolls have each other.

It’d be a good, entertaining gangster movie from the story and acting alone. Ben Hecht, who wrote more great movies than I can list, won an oscar for this, although he hated the final product for deviating from his script. But the visual style is so splendid it puts the story to shame, and accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra on the Criterion DVD, it’s a piece of cinema heaven.

Sternberg wrote, with apparently typical contempt for his audience, ““I had provided the work with many an incident to placate the public, not ignoring the moss-covered themes of love and sacrifice.” But as G. O’Brien points out, “His high opinion of his own capabilities and his majestic sense of his poetic vocation might indeed seem like intolerable arrogance were they not so undeniably justified.”

Mulligan inside his flower shop:

…while outside…

Guy Maddin’s article on Sternberg and the films is, of course, wonderful to read, and it sounds from the quote like Sternberg’s own writings might be essential:

Once, wandering the shower rooms among the actors washing the day’s grime off themselves, von Sternberg heard a background player release “a formidable laugh, an inhuman laugh, enormous and savage, monstrous, a child’s laugh and a murderer’s laugh.” This gigglepuss was George Bancroft, and … von Sternberg rushed right into the shower stall and cast the naked, roaring gigantopithicus he found there as Bull Weed, the gangster-king of his new picture, Underworld.

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