Underworld: Kitsch a go go

If the credits had said Hecht-MacArthur instead of Joseph Von Sternberg, I’d have believed the hardboiled writing partnership, authors of The Front Page and His Girl Friday among countless other stage and film classics, directed Underworld, the 1927 silent that kicked off the gangster picture cycle. Beautifully restored by Criterion — if there was a way to save this clause as a macro I would, since it would spare me the trouble of typing yet another paean to its talents  — Underworld has little of the gauze on which Von Sternberg’s legend thrives. Other than a couple of pervy undertones, it’s rather routine. In other words, fans of Morocco or The Scarlett Empress are out of luck. The plot is bizarre in that late twenties manner: gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) dusts off an alcoholic lawyer he christens, erm, Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) for no good reason other than to simmer as Rolls halfheartedly courts Weed’s moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent).

As stated, the intimations of perversion give Underworld its kick. Rolls Royce is apparently homosexual. Not only does he own lots of books (“He actually likes to read!” Weed crows in one of the title cards), but he tells Feathers after a few minutes of badinage, “I don’t like women.” Primly crossing right left over left and pursing his lips, Brook is Christopher Isherwood played by T.S. Eliot. It doesn’t help Brook a bit that here, as in The Shanghai Express, he reminds me of Gary Cooper weaned on lime juice. Thus, the Feathers-Royce flirtation is implausible from the start (imagine Barbara Stanwyck batting her eyelashes at Franklin Pangborn). Brook’s inflexibility as an actor doesn’t help. To be fair, male secondary leads flummoxed Von Sternberg; more than for Hitchcock, actors with testicles were props. With the exception of Emil Jannings in The Last Command (also released in this Criterion set), they’re either colorless or directed so that the actors don’t play to their strengths. Gary Cooper glistens nobly as an unsmiling uniformed dildo for Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, while William Powell flashes only a handful of his patented smirks and eyebrow furrows in The Last Command. Peter Bogdanovich didn’t like it one bit when Orson Welles dismissed Von Sternberg with a quip that should have settled the matter for all time: “He had a perfect, really an immense visual command over what is finally kitsch.” Think about it though. Nothing is really at stake in a Von Sternberg picture besides smoke-wreathed profiles of Dietrich and her effete leads, getting the right balance of light and shade, and proportionality.

But back to Underworld. The first stirrings of Von Sternberg’s visual elan help. Cigarette smoke billows like exhaust from a jackhammer as Brook makes his non-heterosexual admission. Much later, behind bars, pleading for a kind of clemency from a bailiff, Von Sternberg shoots he and Bancroft in close-up so that at any moment we suspect Bancroft will flirt for his freedom. A transitional film at best, Underworld begs to be rewatched, especially since it’s never looked this good, and most in need of comparison with its superior successors.

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