Underworld (1927)

And so to Criterion’s silent Sternberg box. Hitherto I’ve not actually been overwhelmed by Sternberg’s films, though admittedly I’ve only seen two… but they’re two of his best-regarded films (The Blue Angel and The Scarlet Empress), so I was hoping these would work better for me. Pleased to report I have few if any reservations about Underworld, at least, the film that finally kicked off his career properly after false starts through 1925/26 with MGM and United Artists… redeeming himself with reshoots of another film for Paramount, that studio still didn’t initially intend to let him direct this until fairly late in preproduction… and then once all was said and done, they went back on all their pre-release hype and buried the thing. Which I suspect might finally have been the end of his career had it not become such a hit they had to unexpectedly open it a lot wider. 84 years after the fact, it’s still terrific entertainment, further distinguished historically by being not exactly the first gangster film—there’s the case to be made that D.W. Griffith got there fifteen years earlier—but at least the one that would trigger the genre boom a few years later when sound was entrenched; indeed, I almost missed the sound of the gunfire and gangster voices here. Plotwise, it’s basically a love triangle (and a bit) enacted between crooks: hoodlum Bull Weed, his girl Feathers, rival hood Buck Mulligan (plump if not stately) who fancies the girl, and a washed up pisshead lawyer Bull rescues and who also falls for Feathers. When Bull eradicates Mulligan from the equation and is sentenced to hang, the affair gets complicated. But the visual handling of this material is obviously what Sternberg was interested in; the camerawork and editing are lively and the film has some of the most amazing shadows and silhouettes to be found in films of this era. The end result is a nice mix of storytelling combined with the visual sensibilities Sternberg was already known for, easy to see all these decades later why it was a hit. And how did little Joe’s career develop thereafter? We’ll see in the next couple of reviews…

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