Underworld (1927) ***

Such was the impact of The Blue Angel (1930), the film that brought Marlene Dietrich to Hollywood, that it is easy to forget that director Josef von Sternberg had already directed several Hollywood movies, chief among them this vividly poetic melodrama often cited as the first true Hollywood gangster film.

Modern audiences may be more aware of the differences than the similarities: the film carries Sternberg’s unmistakeable stamp, particularly after the halfway mark as plot gives way to mood. (Lewis Milestone’s The Racket, released just a year later, now looks much the more prototypical.) Sternberg explained: “When I made Underworld I was not a gangster, nor did I know anything about gangsters… I don’t value the fetish for authenticity. On the contrary, the illusion of reality is what I look for, not reality itself.”
Where the film differs most from later variations is in von Sternberg’s typical concentration on the rivalries, intrigues and sexual jealousies within the gangster hierarchy, with very little attention given to the relationship between the criminals and law enforcers. Stylistically, it contains a number of bravura sequences, most famously the gangsters’ ball, a seething maelstrom of frenzied activity, distorted angles and rapid, grotesque close-ups, ably conveying the title-card’s description of a “devil’s carnival” set to “the brutal din of cheap music, booze, hate, lust.”

Much of the trajectory and trappings of the classical gangster film is to be found here in nascent form, even if the cast (George Bancroft, Clive Brook and silent comedian Larry Semon) now seem intriguingly out of place in the milieu. The dialogue is slangy and pithy (conveyed, of course, in title cards), and there is a stirringly violent climax. Writer Ben Hecht, the former Chicago newsman whose list of future screenwriting credits included Scarface is chiefly responsible for establishing the film’s groundbreaking sense of authenticity, having noted as a crime reporter that “nice people… loved criminals”. His principal innovation was “to skip the heroes and heroines (and) write a movie containing only villains and bawds.”
So radical did it seem, with its total immersion in the strange and unhealthy world of the professional criminal, that Paramount anticipated a box-office disaster. In the event, Hecht’s first instinct – that nice people love criminals – proved correct. A neon sign glimpsed in the film reading “The World Is Yours” anticipates not merely Hecht’s later Scarface but the imminent supremacy of the American screen gangster himself.