In terms of the types of American cinema which I most enjoy, there are two which spring to mind first and foremost in my mind: the silent film and the film-noir. Both are very specific film types, products of their time, and can sometimes seem hokey or off by today’s standards of cinema. The film-noir, “black film” so called by the French, is the stuff of cops and robbers, prohibition, gangsters, backstabbing and betrayals. It’s the genre of disillusionment and distrust, shadowy places and shadowy people. The silent film is the medium of pure visual storytelling and visual expression.
Thus brings us to the wonderful film which I viewed last night, Underworld by Sternberg. It is a proto-noir of sorts, a forerunning to the 30s and 40s coming obsession with mobsters and a wonderfully made silent film on top of it. The mixing of the classic film-noir aesthetic and the pure visual storytelling of the silent film is a match made in heaven.
The film sort of meanders its way through a love-triangle story involving a washed-up-now-a-drunk lawyer nicknamed Rolls Royce, a bombastic bank robber nicknamed Bull Weed, and Bull’s girlfriend “Feathers” — a nickname she received based on the feathery look of her clothing choices. Bull, after robbing a bank, uses his money to clean up Rolls Royce and to pamper Feathers beyond all belief. They are his friends and trusted servants.
Then one night at a “gangsters ball” (the one night of the year in which the mobsters “bury the hatchet and hide the tommy guns”) Bull’s rival Buck Mulligan attempts to rape Feathers. Bull kills Buck and is sent to prison. The rest of the film concerns whether or not Rolls Royce and Feathers, who have fallen in love, will run off together or remain faithful to Bull and bust him out of prison before he is hanged.
The story is, to be fair, kind of vapid, loose, and inconsequential. Sternberg’s later silent film, The Docks of New York, is double the masterpiece of this film both narratively and visually, and yet Underworld is still a very fun little silent film.
Visually striking, Sternberg had an apparent innate knowledge of how the camera worked and how best put it to use. In one scene we see Bull digging through a dresser with his back to the camera, we have no idea what he is looking for, and then he stands up clearly holding something in front of him. From our perspective, staring at his back, we cannot see what is in his hand, but then, after Bull gives a slight turn, his shadow on the wall reveals that he is grasping hold of a gun!
The movie revels in these sort of visual treats and compositions which leave the viewer gasping for breath at their beauty (which should tell you something when I say that The Docks of New York is visually superior). One thing that shocked me was Sternberg’s use of wide shots. With the exception of a few “star moments” he reserves his close-ups almost entirely for inserts and films everything in either extreme-wide shots or medium-shots. He likes to photograph groups of people instead of individuals, and he likes to compose his shots to exaggerate motion.
Very interesting how he tells his story visually. Very interesting. There is a thing or two which could be learned from this film.