Ben Hecht won a Best Original Story Oscar at the very first Academy Awards ceremony for UNDERWORLD, Josef Von Sternberg's seminal silent classic that influenced countless gangster movies of the 1930s and '40s.
After robbing a bank, gangster Bull Weed (George Bancroft) encounters a drunken bum (Clive Brook) on the street and takes him home. Impressed with the man's intelligence and the fact that he used to be a lawyer, Bull dubs him "Rolls Royce" and eventually makes him a member of his gang. Bull's moll
Feathers (Evelyn Brent) falls for Rolls, but he refrains from an affair with her because of his debt of gratitude toward Bull. During the annual underworld ball, Feathers is molested by Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler), the head of a rival gang. Bull kills him, but he's caught by the police and after a
trial, is sentenced to hang.
While Bull is in jail, Feathers and Rolls become lovers, but on the night before Bull is to be executed, Rolls schemes to spring him. However, Bull learns about the affair between Feathers and Rolls, and believing that he's been double-crossed, breaks out on his own to get revenge. Bull goes back
to his hideout and finds Feathers there alone. When the police surround the hideout, Bull tries to escape through a secret backdoor, but Rolls has the keys, and Bull is forced to shoot it out with the cops. Bull sees Rolls on the street and shoots him in the arm, but Rolls manages to sneak into
the hideout through the backdoor, and proves his loyalty to Bull by offering to help him escape. Satisfied that he hasn't been betrayed, and realizing that Feathers and Rolls are really in love, Bull lets them escape through the back, and surrenders to the police.
Although UNDERWORLD was certainly not the first gangster film (D.W. Griffith's THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY and Raoul Walsh's REGENERATION were among the silents that preceded it), it is generally accepted to be the first to make the criminals sympathetic protagonists and portray them in a
glamorous and heroic manner, establishing the archetypes which would serve as a template for future Hollywood crime sagas. The film boasts all of the standard gangland cliches--the funny character names, the colorful mobster argot, the speakeasy hangout, and the criminal love triangle--but it's
important to remember that most of these cliches were invented here. Bull Weed is a crude, but warm-hearted and charismatic lug who helps out drunks and gives money to cripples and poor children; his moll is a dumb, but sweet, temptress; and his "brainy" pal is a fallen man looking for redemption.
Visually, the film is full of effects that Von Sternberg was renowned for, including symbolism (feathers floating in the air, clocks and watches superimposed over scenes), and exotic lighting and photography full of smoke, dark shadows, and oblique angles, while the robbery sequences are done in a
then-innovative style of rapid-fire cutting and extreme close-ups to create an impressionistic effect.
Set in an unidentified city that has an imaginary, stylized look, Hecht objected to Von Sternberg's fanciful treatment of his story, which was based on the activities of real-life mobs with which Hecht was acquainted during his days as a Chicago crime reporter, but this clash between the real and
the illusory is fascinating and accounts for the film's lasting artistic impact.
The film's influence on subsequent gangster films is indisputable, particularly Howard Hawks's classic SCARFACE (1932), which was co-written by Hecht (Hawks later claimed to have done uncredited script work on UNDERWORLD as well). The most obvious similarities are the flashing neon signs used as
metaphors ("The City is Yours" in UNDERWORLD; "The World is Yours" in SCARFACE); the underworld balls in both films, strewn with streamers, balloons, and confetti; and the analogy between the gangsters and historical tyrants (Hecht and Hawks described SCARFACE as a story of the Borgias in Chicago,
and in UNDERWORLD, Rolls compares Bull to Attila the Hun, prompting Bull to ask: "Who's Attila? The leader of some wop gang?"). Hawks even went so far as to use two of UNDERWORLD's elements in his western, RIO BRAVO (1959), naming Angie Dickinson's character "Feathers" and having a character throw
money into a spittoon in order to humiliate a drunk, as Buck Mulligan does to Rolls. Even after all these years, UNDERWORLD continues to have a strong influence on the crime genre, and remains one of the most stylish and entertaining of all gangster movies. (Violence.)
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- Review: Ben Hecht won a Best Original Story Oscar at the very first Academy Awards ceremony for UNDERWORLD, Josef Von Sternberg's seminal silent classic that influenced countless gangster movies of the 1930s and '40s. After robbing a bank, gangster Bull Weed (Geo… (more)