Sunday, 6 May 2012

Feathers, Bull & Rolls Royce… Underworld (1927)

Underworld was the first professional film made by Josef von Sternberg and is credited with helping to start the vogue for gangster movies. It may have given viewers the vicarious thrill of seeing inside this seemingly amoral world but there’s a lot more to this story than meets the eye.

Here there are rounded characters who make mistakes, rise and fall but ultimately hold on to some sort of moral code.

Yes, there is violence and there is intimidation but there is also redemption and a chance, even at the last, to find peace and purpose.To this extent we’re not a million miles away from Sternberg’s next (surviving) film, The Last Command: men do what they must but there’s always integrity in serving a greater cause…a greater good.

George Bancroft plays the, aptly-named, Bull Weed, an alpha plus male, who just about rules his corner of town. He’s a massive presencewith brute strength to match and intimidates all comers.

He encounters a drunk (Clive Brook) during one explosive bank raid and takes the confused by-stander under his wing as he makes his escape. It turns out that the lush is an ex-lawyer and all round smart guy. Bull nick-names him Rolls Royce and sets him to work in a bar he frequents.

It is here that we see the appropriately-named Feathers played by an ice-cool Evelyn Brent. Louise Brooks damned her former co-star with faint praise and suggested that von Sternberg, used her natural stiffness to advantage and gave her the powerful detached sexuality we see, through liberal application of a variety of plumage.

The feathers announce Brent’sarrival down the stairs, they give away her presence at inopportune moments and surround her in soft exotic potential at all times. They are both her shield and her display, helping her win the belle of the ball at the gangsters social.

Back in the bar, Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) one of Bull’srivals tries to humiliate Rolls Royce by dropping a ten dollar note in a spittoon. Rolls, having sobered up, is easily the smartest man in the room and refuses to rise to the bait. Bull comes to head off the challenge and the party leave in unity with the upper hand but leaving a man with a grudge.

The new alliance begins to develop its own sub plots as Feathers is drawn to the transformed Rolls – a man of wit and education who offers her a more sympathetic ear than her mighty man Bull. Rolls doesn’t want to betray his new friend but can’t deny the attraction of this woman, who, like himself, probably hasn’t chosen this life… rather the reverse.

Things come to a head at the gangsters’ ball when an inebriated Bull starts to notice their chemistry and jealously tells Rolls to leave his girl alone. Bull proceeds to drink himself into a stupor and doesn’t notice when Feathers goes to the office to collect her winner’s trophy. She finds Buck waiting for her and he begins to molest her knowing that Bull is out of the way.

But Bull is roused and staggers to the rescue, forcing Buck to flee. He tracks him down and shoots him dead. The judge makes an example of him but Bull smiles back in defiance.

The second half of the film sees Bull imprisoned and awaiting execution… Von Sternberg doesn’t waste time on following chase-capture-conviction and expects his audience to keep up. In both this film and The Last Command he is a master of economic story-telling: a not inconsiderable skill.

Bull begins to suspect that Feathers and Rolls Royce are betraying him now that they are alone in their freedom. Yet, whilst they consider their options, they are concerned with the debt they owe him and work to help in escape his execution.

Things somehow go wrong though and, enraged by their perceived betrayal almost more than his pending demise, Bull contrives to bust himself out at the last minute. He makes his way to his old flat intent on exacting retribution on his former lover and his ex-friend. He finds Feathers and won’t listen to her protestations as the police close in and the place is pocked marked by a relentless hail of bullets.

Rolls Royce hears of the escape and goes to their aid. Still not seeing the truth, Bull wounds Rolls in the arm as he dashes towards their apartment building. He manages to climb through the hidden exit and falls down in front of the astonished Bull and the aggrieved Feathers.

At last seeing the truth, Bull makes his decisions with speed and clarity. He helps Feathers carry Rolls to safety and holds the police long enough for them to get clear.

Finally surrendering, one of the police tells him he has only gained an hour’s respite, “there was something I had to find out,” replies Bull, “...and that hour was worth more to me than my whole life”.

So, Bull can go to his death knowing that he had earned the love and loyalty of his two friends. In spite of all of the violence, the bluster and bluff, the most important thing is love. A surprising closure for a gangster movie maybe but not with von Sternberg directing.

As with The LastCommand, situations run away from the characters and death is inevitable. What matters is how you live your life and how you leave it. Von Sternberg doesn’t judge Bull but he shows how even the most brutish can find redemption in their own code of honour.

George Bancroft is extraordinary as Bull Weed, unpleasantly aggressive and unpredictably nasty at turns but with a real concern for those who give him loyalty.

Clive Brook makes the transition from bumbling soak to smart lieutenant and love interest. His character changes the most and he is the one with which you can most easily identify.

But I think it is Brent who takes the honours as the enigmatic and alluring Feathers. Not many molls were to have her depth of character. Maybe that’s down to the ways in which von Sternberg placed her in his film but it works very well.

Underworld is available as part of the Criterion vonSternberg set and comes with a couple of features on the director along with a 1968 Swedish television interview. It's an essential set.


  1. I particularly enjoyed a lot the beginning of this movie, the encounter between the two men and the apparition of Feathers ... Wow, what an atmosphere!

  2. Not sure if it was all shot on set but von Sternberg does maintain a great look and feel throughout! It's tough in there.

  3. nice idea.. thanks for sharing.