Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

“Don’t tell me the end of a needle has a conscience.”

Years after his dad is gunned down in an alley, an ex-con (Cliff Robertson) seeks revenge on the men responsible for his murder.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cliff Robertson Films
  • Ex-Cons
  • Mafia
  • Revenge
  • Sam Fuller Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
In Peary’s review of this film about an ex-con who “infiltrates the mob in order to rub out the three surviving criminal bigwigs whom he saw beat his father to death years before,” he points out that “only in Sam Fuller’s America can a petty thief move all the way up in the organization” as Robertson’s Tolly Devlin does.

He adds that “this unflinching crime drama… draws parallels between criminals and lawmen, who wage war against each other in the identical emotionless manner, planning their strategies in nearby buildings.”

He points out that the “picture shows how the criminal element has ruined the fabric of our society”:

… and that “Fuller’s sympathy lies with children who are victimized if parents are either mobsters or top-level lawmen (who are forced to accept payoffs to keep their kids alive) or who are seduced into a world of prostitution and drugs.”

He notes that the film depicts mobsters as “some of our most respectable, philanthropic citizens when not involved in criminal activities”; for instance, “Fuller has them meet by a swimming pool to contrast their filthy personalities with clean water.”

Indeed, Fuller is not exactly known for his subtlety; throughout the film we see “typical strong Fuller visuals”, and know exactly how characters are meant to relate to one another through strategic placement and framing (particularly of baby photos and dolls).

Peary warns us that “you’ll want to wash our hands after [this film is] over,” given the “unusual” fact that “our ‘hero’ really is a bastard.” In his review of the film for TCM, Richard Harland Smith notes that “even with the studio vetting, Underworld U.S.A. remains brutal stuff, with characters beaten, shot, drowned, burned alive and one 9 year-old innocent run down in the street as a warning against finking.”

Yikes. With that said, as Peary points out, “Robertson gives one of his best performances”:

… and there are several “memorable” performances among the supporting cast, including “beautiful Dolores Dorn as Robertson’s prostitute girlfriend”:

… “Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother (who is incapable of bearing kids of her own, so collects dolls)”:

… “and Richard Rust as a hit man.”

This long-con revenge tale — while morally challenging — remains well worth a look by film fanatics.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Cliff Robertson as Tolly
  • Excellent supporting performances

  • Highly atmospheric cinematography
  • Typically solid direction by Fuller

Must See?
Yes, as another powerful and unique film by Fuller.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director


One thought on “Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

  1. Rewatch. Agreed; a once-must, as a solid, satisfying Fuller flick. It’s sort of surprising how modern this film remains today. And it’s also smart as hell.

    Special mention: Kay – who did almost no other film work and was seen mostly in television. Her performance here kept reminding me of Sylvia Sidney (though not exactly like a copy).

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