No, it hasn’t got a damned thing to do with vampires, werewolves or Kate Beckinsale in leather. (Though it does have Evelyn Brent in feathers, which is even better.) Underworld (1927) is both the first true gangster picture — as we think of the term — and the first fully realized (and existing) film from one of the greatest of all filmmakers: Josef von Sternberg. In 1925, Sternberg had made The Salvation Hunters independently — virtually as an amateur — and was immediately hailed as a genius. Well, back then (and even today), that term was the kiss of death. A deal to make films with Mary Pickford fell through (Sternerg was too weird and dark for her), and a brief stint at MGM was a disaster. He made a film for Chaplin called The Sea Gull, which was retitled A Woman of the Sea. Then without warning and never offering a reason, Chaplin suppressed the movie altogether. But Sternberg proved himself useful at Paramount by recutting and partially reshooting the “unreleasable” Children of Divorce, securing him a berth there — albeit not as a director. A series of events intervened, though, and he ended up turning Ben Hecht’s screenplay Underworld into an amazingly popular film — though one not liked by Hecht, who felt Sternberg had sentimentalized the story. (He probably had, but those changes accounted for its popularity — a popularity so great that it became the first movie ever to add midnight shows to handle the crowds.) Today, Underworld seems a pretty simple and straightforward gangster movie — that is still made satisfying by the lead performances and Sternberg’s visual flair. But in 1927, no one had seen anything like it, and it made Sternberg’s career, a career he kept going full throttle for eight years at Paramount with something like complete autonomy. It’s still remarkable in its ways that we now think of as Sternberg’s signature: the love triangle, the sentiment amid the cynicism and the frame bristling with life (among other things). The only thing it lacks is his more elaborate use of moving camera. Oh, there’s a little bit of it here and there, but this is mostly a Hollywood silent built more on cutting than fluid movement. That doesn’t keep Underworld from being a major work and one of the director’s most enjoyable ones.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Underworld Tuesday, Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.