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Friday, July 1, 2011

UNDERWORLD (1927)

Included with THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK/’28 and THE LAST COMMAND/’28 in a Criterion 3-pac of Josef von Sternberg silents, this groundbreaking gangster pic is an eyeful. With superb lensing from Bert Glennon, as atmospheric & abstract as a charcoal sketch, and a Ben Hecht script that all but established Hollywood’s gangster iconography (squealing tires, jangling phones, sneering accents & rat-a-tat-tat guns would arrive with the coming of sound), it’s the purest mob tale imaginable. Tough guy George Bancroft stumbles over drunken Clive Brook after an explosive bank robbery and winds up helping the bum get back on his feet. Brook cleans up pretty good and is soon running the office, so to speak. Trouble looms when Bancroft’s moll, the alarmingly impassive Evelyn Brent, falls for this suave accountant. Meanwhile, a spat between Bancroft and a rival gangster is coming to a head. Bancroft nails the guy, but gets pinched for the hit, setting the coast clear for Brook & Brent. But there really is honor amongst thieves and Brook plans a tricky Death Row escape for his boss. Too bad he doesn’t know that Bancroft has heard about the affair and only wants to get out so that he can kill his two-timing partner! It’s all great dramatic fodder for Sternberg who crafts a series of thrilling action sequences & character-keyed moody chiaroscuro from the material, and quite probably never realized what a priceless set of pointers he had made for just about every director who followed him in the genre.

CONTEST: Howard Hawks really took ths film to heart, not only in SCARFACE/’32 where scripter Ben Hecht got to poach his own stuff, but also in one of Hawk’s best known Westerns. Name the Western and the two major steals from UNDERWORLD to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of a NetFlix DVD.

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