Underworld (1927)

The beast is sleeping. Passed out from too much booze and too good a time. The gangster’s ball is over, and all that is left is him passed out on a table, and his woman about to be assaulted by the man’s enemy. He is warned of the danger. Shook. He is still sleeping, or in a stupor. He slowly raises his eyes, aware of the danger, aware of the alcohol poisoning his system, aware that his body cannot move like it should. He is awakened, he screams. He grabs at himself, trying to force himself out of the chair. Staggering through a hallway filled with confetti up to his waste. He knocks down the door and the enemy runs. Runs to his den, with the beast in pursuit. The beast stares in the window at his enemy attempting to sober up, drags his body across the window to the door. Fires five shots. The enemy is dead, but in dying he has condemned the beast to death.

Underworld is a genre defining gangster film directed by Josef Von Sternberg.  George Bancroft is stunning in it. You can almost feel the alcohol in his system in the scene described above. He is a bank robber who is taken by the law not for bank robbing, but for murdering his woman’s would be rapist. The cops are incompetent and occasionally vicious (Is there ever a recorded case of cops using machine gun turrets against gangsters? It seems to happen in a lot of these early movies). The gangster has a hilarious gay friend, and a woman who always wears feathers. The film has hints of the Opera. It is definitely worth seeing.

(I saw this at the Niles Silent Film Museum)

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