Image from Underworld Movie

By Kristin Thompson / kmthomps@wisc.edu

Certain years in the history of film stand out for having produced more than their fair share of masterpieces. 1927 was one such year. In the United States alone, there were Buster Keaton’s The General, Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven, F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise, Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, and Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld. On a slightly less exalted plane there were Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg and William Wellman’s Wings, the latter the winner of the first best-picture Oscar.

Such films demonstrate the utter mastery of visual storytelling that American filmmakers had gained over the past decade. Ironically, it was also the year of The Jazz Singer, the hit film that made it inevitably that sound would be used for more than recorded musical accompaniment. The constraints imposed by the crude early sound technology meant that filmmakers would not regain the flexibility of the silent period until 1932. It’s no wonder that in the early years of the talkies, some filmmakers and theorists felt that sound had ruined an artform that had just come into its own.

Underworld was von Sternberg’s fourth film, and his second surviving one. His first feature, The Salvation Hunters (1925), was a turgid exercise in grim naturalism, utterly at odds with the style he later developed. We see that style already fully mature in Underworld.

The plot is relatively simple, dealing with a love triangle that develops between gangster “Bull” Weed, the reformed drunkard, “Rolls Royce,” whom he takes on as his right-hand man, and Bull’s girlfriend “Feathers.” Von Sternberg tells his story visually, stringing together close-ups that convey the action, close-ups not just of faces but of telling details or gestures that capture the essence of a scene. His editing makes not only for clarity and efficiency, but often for vividness and excitement as well. A contemporary reviewer rightly singled out the virtuoso scene of Bull stealing a bracelet for Feathers: “The jewelry-store hold-up is done in four flashes: a pistol shot smashes a clock set above shelves full of silver; a frightened clerk turns; a hand scrapes diamonds from their cases; a crowd is seen through the store’s plate-glass window ... This kind of incisiveness, this giving of the part for the whole, when used imaginatively, not spottily or as a trick, is a method exactly suited to the screen, and one little used.” Exactly. Having seen this quick-cut scene only once, the reviewer missed some shots: there’s a shot of the clerk by the clock, a cut-in to show a bullet-hole appearing in the glass; back to the clerk as he turns; a close-up of the hand taking the bracelet; a close-up of the floor as an incriminating floor is dropped unnoticed; and a view of the crowd outside scattering. It’s a flashy scene, but von Sternberg’s build-up of conversation scenes from close views is just as confident.

Von Sternberg was obsessed by light, and he was as skilled as anyone who ever worked in Hollywood at “painting” his compositions with the arrangements of lamps, scrims, and reflectors on the set. Today he is remembered most for having used that skill in a series of films he made with Marlene Dietrich, starting with The Blue Angel (1930) and continuing in six more star vehicles made in Hollywood, including Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932). Dietrich would never again look as radiant once she and von Sternberg parted ways. But even before he discovered her, von Sternberg was applying his artistry to far less glamorous actors, in this case George Bancroft, whom the director cast in three silent films and his first talkie, the eccentric but wonderful Thunderbolt (1929).

Alloy Orchestra Photo

Apart from being a beautifully made film, Underworld introduced the basic conventions of the gangster genre as we think of it today. There had been plenty of movies including gangsters before 1927, but they were always the villains. Some films followed the police’s efforts to track down gangsters. Many centered on women unknowingly becoming engaged to a gangster or trying save a relative from blackmail or from becoming a gangster. A very common plot device was to have a heroine’s boyfriend falsely accused of a crime committed by gangsters. None of these films actually had a gangster as the protagonist. With “Bull” Weed, the notion of the “good-bad” man, the sympathetic criminal that William S. Hart had popularized in Westerns came into the gangster genre. Much credit for helping to define the genre goes to the great Ben Hecht, whose original screenplay received Underworld’s only Oscar in the first year those awards were given. (Amazingly, it was not nominated in any other category, even cinematography.) The later memorable characterization of gangster protagonists by Jimmy Cagney (Public Enemy, 1931, and others), Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932), and Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, 1930) follow directly on from the model created by Underworld.