Underworld (1927) Director: Josef von Sternberg
I just love everything Josef von Sternberg ever made, especially his legendary collaborations with Marlene Dietrich which successfully transitioned from silents to talkies, but his early silent film Underworld predated all of that glamor and intrigue. Underworld is the template for all future gangster films, it is based on Ben Hecht’s story of Chicago mobsters (for which he received the first Academy Award for Best Screenplay). It was released in 1927, the first film von Sternberg made after writing and directing an unreleased Charlie Chaplin picture entitled “A Woman of the Sea” (1926) –one of two lost Charlie Chaplin films having been destroyed by Chaplin himself for a tax write-off. Aside from troubles with the Chaplin film, von Sternberg experienced an acrimonious situation wherein he recently walked off the set of an MGM film. His career seemed to be on life-support when he signed with Paramount under the condition that he be a mere Assistant Director, however he was so impressive that he was given a second chance and promoted to the Director’s chair. Underworld was the resulting picture. It represents the first in a string of eight classic films von Sternberg made for Paramount Pictures.
George Bancroft plays Bull Weed, a tough gangster (based on the brutal Irish mobster “Terrible” Tommy O’Connor). Bull regularly robs banks alone with complete impunity. Enter “Rolls Royce” (played by Clive Brook), a drunken former lawyer who has fallen from grace. The two strike up an unlikely partnership using Bull’s recklessness and Rolls Royce’s intelligence. However, a love triangle develops with Bull’s girlfriend “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent) and a battle with a rival gangster ensues leading to Bull’s arrest. In the end, Rolls Royce contemplates an escape plan but Bull suspects he has been double-crossed so he escapes from prison on his own. The chase leads to a massive gunfight at his old hide-out. Only at the end does Bull realize Rolls Royce was on his side all along. Seeing the true love between Feathers and Rolls Royce, Bull surrenders to the police: “There was something I had to find out –and that hour was worth more to me than my whole life.”
Apparently Paramount had minimal faith in Underworld so it was only released in a single theatre, but it became both a critical and commercial success much to everyone’s surprise.