(1927) dir. Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/11/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA
The first of three or four films that I went to see at the Castro this last weekend as part of the Silent Film Festival, Underworld is notable as a prototype “gangster” film, written by Ben Hecht, who would go on to a very notable career in screenwriting, including Scarface (1932) and others far too many to mention. The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg with great style and flair and features quite a bit of fun.
The film was introduced by Eddie Muller, local noir aficianado, who suggested it as one of the earliest instances of the gangster film and one of the precursors to noir, though certainly not noir specifically. And those points were easy to see.
It was interesting to see the gangster film as a silent, since in watching several gangster films lately, the language and delivery of the dialogue seemed so key. The story is more purely prototypical, as are some of the characters: the moll, the smallish but very tidy gangster, the bigger than life antihero. According to Muller, Hecht felt that von Sternberg ruined the film with some more sappy sequences. Again, hard to say, but the film wasn’t as “hard” as some of the later, more well-known gangster films that would soon follow.
I enjoyed this film, but oddly, I am not finding a lot to say about it. So, I’ll leave it at that.