1927 // USA // Josef von Sternberg
Criterion Collection (LINK)
The 1927 silent film Underworld was the first break-out hit from the Austria-born American film director Josef von Sternberg, who was more widely known for the seven sound-film collaborations with Marlene Dietrich in the 30s, in which Sternberg adopted a more sophisticated and stylistic aestheticism unfortunately overshadowed his early achievement in silent features. Underworld, a silent gangster film, along with The Last Command and The Docks of New York included in the Criterion Collection box set, had a theatrical sensibility in characters build-up and fluidity in narration that foretold Sternberg’s later extravagant aesthetic in The Blue Angel (1930) or Shanghai Express (1932).
Underworld was often regarded as the pioneering example for gangster genre, indelibly influenced numerous successors. For instance Hawk’s Scarface (1932) sharing Ben Hecht as the writer had the same larger-than-life unrepentant antihero, similar iconic gleaming neon sign (the ambition was expanded from “The City Is Yours” in Underworld to “The World Is Yours” in Scarface) and a climatic machine gun showdown inside a barricaded building. Cinematographer Bert Glennon utilized light and shadow in the compact closed space magnificently, created an atmospheric Chicago nightlife which preceded any film noirs.
George Bancroft played the unapologetic brutal gangster “Bull Weed”, who every acts exhibited loathsome against laws. The film opened with an explosive bank robbery (the window-blasting scene created another signature moment signifying a robbery), then a chance meeting between Bull and a washed out drunken lawyer Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) was developed into a successful partnership in crime, Bull as the simple-minded man in action while Royce as the smart adviser. But loyalty and brotherhood were often tested and violated by the lust to woman, same fate could not be evaded in Underworld where Royce fell in a love with Bull’s woman Feathers (Evelyn Brent).
The entrance scene of Feathers was above all the most memorable moment in the entire film. A feather detached from Feathers fur coat, initially hovered on air, then slowly fell down like a lively being to the front of Royce, attracting both the haggard man as well as Bull’s rival Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler). The scene aroused the men’s desire while illustrating the sexual subtext. In classic Hollywood films, women were often objectified as men’s possession, and Feathers was no less than an object of desire. She was the motivation for the assassination of Buck in Bull’s hand, which in turn led to Bull’s death penalty and the climatic confrontation scene with the police.
Yet, Feathers was identified with much more than a male gaze. She recognized her own contradictory nature. On one hand she owned Bull for her luxury life, her garish jewelry and her feathery coat, she had the dignity to stay loyal; but on the other hand she fully realized who was her true love. That made Feathers and Royce last decision to rescue their benefactor from jail instead of eloping much more respectable. At the end both Royce and Bull made the most “righteous” decision, as Bull stated in his last line that with the one extra hour he gained by escaping, he learnt the true nature of human more than ever he would know. It was a moment of gangster glorification where the acts of loyalty offset the crimes they did. It was a perpetual moral dilemma, and that’s why gangster films like Underworld still fascinate and resonate today.