Josef von Sternberg’s 1927 silent crime movie Underworld isn’t considered a film noir in any traditional sense, but it certainly speaks the language of the genre and serves as an instructive if influential piece of prescient cinema.
It stands to reason that von Sternberg would go on to helm films noir like Macao and The Shanghai Gesture (along with the precursor noir Sergeant Madden), as his command of the sinister underbelly of city life is exceptional. In Underworld, he sets Bert Glennon’s lens loose in “a great city in the dead of night” and never relinquishes the shadows.
George Bancroft stars as thug Bull Weed. He’s robbing a bank when he comes across a drunk (Clive Brook). A relationship blossoms, with the drunk earning the name “Rolls Royce” because he’s as silent as the car when it comes to Weed’s illicit activity. The two become fast friends and Weed gives his new confidant the cash to get set up in life.
Feathers (Evelyn Brent) enters the fray. She’s Weed’s moll, but something starts bubbling between her and Rolls Royce. To make matters worse, mobster Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) is causing trouble. This causes Weed to act, which puts Weed in the clink. And that puts Feathers and Rolls Royce in a tough spot.
Underworld raises some questions along the way, especially concerning Feathers and Rolls Royce. Here are two people who know they owe their current comforts to Weed and his criminality. Rolls Royce is an alcoholic, but he’s pulled himself out of his addiction with the help of Weed’s capital and arguably owes the gangster his life.
Feathers’ past is a little more secretive, but she likewise recognizes Weed’s role in her elevated status. She’s not without a backbone, as evidenced when Buck tries to rape her, but she also knows where her bread is buttered.
When Weed is put in prison, the heat is on. Feathers and Rolls Royce entertain the idea of running away together, but can they really double-cross the man who gave them everything? They are indisputably swept into his vortex of violence, but they didn’t have a problem with it when the benefits were so apparent.
These compelling ethical quandaries are tinted by von Sternberg’s sturdy reminders of just how grubby the criminal world is. An armistice ball stirs the pot, with every crook in the city present under the promise of peace.
But streamers flood the floor with excess and Buck takes his big chance, ditching his own dame (Helen Lynch) to attack Feathers. Drunks stagger around in a haze and fights flower despite the compulsory command to “check your gats” at the door. It is, as the intertitle describes, a “devil’s carnival” and it ends with Feathers holding her top up.
Film noir finds complication in cobwebbing gloom, with righteousness tiptoeing through the slatted blinds. Underworld demarcates this order, from the shadows of the Law as the judge reads Weed the riot act to the psychological prisons self-imposed by the characters.
This world of penetrating close-ups and smoky lanes is pure noir, years before it would officially land. It’s also pure cinema, with a story laced with lean, filmic eroticism. There’s sure elegance to von Sternberg’s sly observations, to his analysis of those midnight souls that can never quite shut out the dark.