Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Josef von Sternberg | Underworld

that hour
by Douglas Messerli

Charles Furthman and Robert N. Lee (writers, based on a story by Ben Hecht), George Marion, Jr. (titles), Josef von Sternberg (director) Underworld / 1927

Only the second film entirely directed by von Sternberg, Underworld, commentators have often declared, was the first of the “gangster” films. Although Underworld certainly does have many of the tropes of the genre, I would argue that von Sternberg’s work is far less dark and much more comic than were later major gangster films.

      Indeed, from the very beginning the film takes on a sort comic tone, commenting on “Bull” Weed’s (George Bancroft) “personal loan,” as a nearby bank vault blows up. The event, witnessed by “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook), a former lawyer who is now a down-and-out alcoholic, who is suddenly involved in Weed’s life, as the gangster kidnaps him to keep him silent. But even this early in the film, we realize that although Weed may be a tough, even a coarse man, he truly has a “heart of gold,” not unlike the more comic branch of the gangster tales best represented by the filmed stories and novels of Damon Runyon (in fact, Ben Hecht, who won an Oscar for his writing on this film, later co-wrote the screenplay of one of the most successful of Runyon works, Guys and Dolls). When challenged about his trustworthiness, “Rolls Royce” quips “I run quiet,” while Weed, after giving him a chance to prove it, adds his own metaphoric layer: “Look at Him. Cost me a thousand. Looks like a million.” Even Weed’s girl, “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent) gets in on the punning act: “How long since you had the body and washed and polished?”

  In short, the director seems, from the very beginning, more interested in a witty language than in the dark actions of robbery and murder. Only “Buck” Mulligan (Fred Kohler) seems truly mean, rolling up a ten dollar bill and throwing it into a spittoon while demanding “Rolls Royce,” now working as a cleaning man in the gangster’s club, pick it up. When “Rolls Royce” refuses and is struck by Mulligan, the relationship between him and Weed becomes even closer, as “Bull” pays for his bodily cleanup, taking him on almost as a kind of protective butler. In a hideout lined with books—another of von Sternberg’s humorous vamps—“Rolls Royce” sits quietly reading as his new sponsor proudly points out, “He likes to read!”

      Fascinated by the now handsome man whom her boyfriend has brought into her life, “Feathers” sits alone with “Rolls Royce” in the hideout, as Weed speeds off to steal some jewels his girl has eyed through a shop window. But after several steamy stares and a new layer of makeup, “Feathers” is, at least temporarily, put in her place, as “Rolls Royce” remarks, “I’m not interested in women.”

     Despite this obviously “homosexual” confession, however, given the way the two have visually assessed each other over the edges of their books, we are not completely convinced. But there is something in Weed’s quick acquisition of his new friend and his pride in his cleaned-up appearance that is not sufficiently explained in the story—which will matter a great deal at film’s end.

The director, accordingly, has set up a story that early on seems more comic and sexually-inclined than the future films portraying hard-boiled, brutal thugs that culminated, ultimately, in film noir. In a few moments later, moreover, von Sternberg transports us into a world that is even more bizarre than most later gangster films, adroitly moving his camera through confetti-strewn rooms, spinning up and down stairs, and in and out of focus like a drunken participant in the Mobster’s ball (a kind of surreal-like take on France’s “anything goes” Artist’s ball later presented in the film musical “An American in Paris”). The scene is almost a signature event in the oeuvre of a director who loves to move his lens in and out of nets, the tendrils of trees, veils and other claustrophobic-creating intrusions of nature and space. In such a world, gravity prevails, as one by one the ball’s celebrants fall to the floor drunk, while Mulligan entraps “Feathers” in back room attempts to rape her—another way of laying people flat.

     Even though this affair ends in the murder of Mulligan by Weed in “Buck’s” flower shop (a store featuring, in another slightly comic wink, floral wreaths), resulting in “Bull’s” arrest, trial, and imprisonment, it is still hard to think of von Sternberg’s world as seriously dark. If nothing else, it clears the way for the simmering romance between “Rolls Royce” and “Feathers.” As they embrace, moving toward their first on-screen kiss, however, “Rolls Royce,” always the gentleman (and perhaps truly not interested in women), refuses to betray his boss, while “Feathers” simultaneously backs off: “You taught me how to be decent.” Together the two hatch a plot to help Weed escape before he is executed that same night.

       The plan goes bad, however, and, now suspicious of their relationship and feeling betrayed, Weed makes his own escape, returning to the hideout where the couple also meet up. Convinced his friends have intended to betray him all from the beginning, Weed blocks the exits and begins a wild shoot out with the cops, as they try to convince him of their loyalty. Finally recognizing his mistake, Weed, his lover and friend briefly are framed by von Sternberg in a scene that immediately calls up what we have subliminally recognized all along: their relationship has been a kind of ménage a trois (clearly played out in the image in the court room, where Weed’s shadow hovers over the couple watching the trial). Weed closes the door to the escape route on himself, freeing the other two and surrendering himself to the police.

     When the police captain sarcastically suggests that all that escape has provided Weed was another hour, Weed replies: “That hour was to me worth more than my whole life.” For Weed, apparently, has discovered in the selfless acts of both “Rolls Royce” and “Feathers” that he was still loved. Weed’s execution thus seems to be more redemptive than judicially educative. In von Sternberg’s slightly cynical and perverse world, it is almost possible that “crime does pay.”

Los Angeles, October 2, 2013

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