Underworld (1927)

Underworld (1927)

“Nobody helps me! I help other people.”

An inebriated man (Clive Brook) is picked up by a notorious gangster (George Bancroft), who takes pity on him and gives him a place to stay — but when Brook and Bancroft’s girlfriend “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent) fall for each other, and Bancroft’s chief rival (Fred Kohler) continues to make aggressive passes at Feathers as well, tensions quickly get heated.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Clive Brook Films
  • Gangsters
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Josef von Sternberg Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Silent Films

Peary lists three of Josef von Sternberg’s final silent films in his GFTFF: The Last Command (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), and this title, often cited as the thematic forerunner of several classic 1930s gangster flicks. Ben Hecht wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay, basing it upon real-life scenarios and people in Chicago’s gangland — but ultimately the film’s focus is less on the broader world of gangsters (Bancroft doesn’t seem to belong to a larger organization, for instance) than on the emotional conflicts faced by the key players. Indeed, the narrative is primarily concerned with exploring how Brook and Brent will deal with their love/lust for one another, given their sense of moral obligation to big-galoot Bancroft:

… and how Bancroft will handle their perceived disloyalty when his rivalry with Kohler turns fatal and he’s sent to jail.

Unfortunately, none of the characters are fleshed out enough for this rather simplistic scenario to become engaging on anything other than a surface level; we’d love to know more about stoic Brook, for instance, and how he ended up on the streets, or how and why “Feathers” feels such undying loyalty for Bancroft. With that said, von Sternberg’s directorial talents are in clear view — especially during the creatively filmed mid-way party sequence. While this one can’t quite be elevated to must-see status, it’s far more accomplished than most other films of its era, making it worth a one-time look.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The creatively filmed party sequence

Must See?
No, though it remains of interest for its clear influence on future classics of the genre.


One thought on “Underworld (1927)

  1. First viewing – agreed, not a must, though it will be of interest to ffs particularly keen on the cinema history of gangster films.

    The main problem with the film is that very little happens. (As well…personally, I don’t buy the ending.) When the film was released, no doubt breaking into the gangster arena on-screen was all that was necessary for its own uniqueness, and the storyline didn’t need to be more than paper-thin. But a good deal of the classic gangster films from Warner Brothers (Paramount produced ‘Underworld’) have landed ‘Underworld’ deep in shadow. Even though the film is produced, directed and performed well enough, it is of minor interest for the most part.

    von Sternberg would fare much, much better in numerous ways with ‘Docks of New York’, the following year.

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