Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld is a fascinating early cornerstone of both the director’s worldview and the gangster genre. While its swagger and vendettas left indelible fingerprints on the gangland classics of the early ’30s (screenwriter Ben Hecht would shamelessly recycle such elements as the delusion-of-greatness neon sign and the barricaded shootout for the original Scarface), Sternberg’s evocation of a cosmos of mobsters and molls is far removed from the grime and grit of the later Warner Bros. films. Where those underworlds are muscular, bristling, and tabloid-rough, Sternberg’s is ethereal and oneiric, gliding from scene to scene like the feather that floats into the saloon as the fates of its three protagonists become intertwined.
Given a literally explosive intro, raucous gangster “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) is toasted as “Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome” by “Rolls Royce” (Clive Brook), a broken-down lawyer who’s scooped from the gutter to serve at his nightclub. The kingpin’s mistress, “Feathers” (Evelyn Brent), completes the narrative’s romantic axis, which forecasts Sternberg’s predilection for caustic, triangular relationships as surely as the movie’s collection of coded, quotation-marked monikers attests to the secretive masks his characters so often wear. Underworld is an entrancing reverie of bullets, confetti, and extraordinarily expressive gestures; a thousand words are compressed in the way a finger is dipped into a glass of milk, or in how a wizened dandy turns the perfuming of his handkerchief into a hand ballet.
Hecht reportedly loathed “artsy” intrusions like a mid-heist pause so a coin could be dropped into a beggar’s cap, yet it is in such moments, arranged between Bull’s roaring eruptions and Rolls Royce’s stanch sang-froid, that the surfaces of Sternberg’s hermetic world are infused with emotion. If lacking the dazzling liquidity of the director’s later works, the film already showcases his appreciation for the folly of love, and how such an absurd act as eluding death for an extra hour in order to find out the truth about a woman’s feelings can make all the difference in the world.