BR: Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

September 21, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  March 20, 2018

Genre:  Crime / Film Noir

Synopsis: After getting the names of his father’s killers, a punk infiltrates the mob and plots the demise of his remaining three targets.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / Two 2009 Featurettes: “Sam Fuller: Storyteller” (24:13) + “Martin Scorsese on Underworld U.S.A.” (5:07) /  Theatrical Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Sam Fuller’s early years as a crime reporter and flair for tabloid stories are especially pungent in Underworld U.S.A., a supposedly cautionary tale Everyone Must See! to alert themselves of the “threat to a nation” – criminal underworld profiting from drugs, extortion, and murder. While Fuller does present a dramatic tale of a punk who tracks down the four men responsible for beating his old man to death in an alley, it’s also an outrageous revenge drama packed with a nihilistic pursuit that ultimately claims most of the morally bankrupt characters.

David Kent is excellent in expressing the thuggish, ratty nature of young Tolly Devlin who watches a literal shadowplay of his dad’s demise cast on an alley wall. Almost immediately after cradling his father’s battered head, Tolly sets in motion a plan that sends him to jail in his teens and twenties, getting closer & closer to the first killer. When they finally have a face to face, instead of physically tormenting him, Tolly refuses forgiveness after he’s told the names of the other killers. Little by little, Tolly maneuvers his way into a medium-sized mob in which his three remaining targets maintain assorted legal fronts for lead kingpin Earl Connors, played by one of Hollywood’s great character actors, Robert Emhardt, a corpulent, nuanced performer who could be a genial father figure, or a revolting racist (The Intruder).

The time leap from teen years to young adult and from Kent to star Cliff Robertson is fluid because the character’s cockiness and physical quirks – eyes that scour and assess, a twitching smirk, and curious swagger – are shared by the two actors, plus a nasty scar whose origin Fuller dramatizes in a simple yet brutal little scene in which Tolly’s teen rival gashes him when he refuses to handover cash he’s snatched from a New Year’s Eve drunk.

Thirtysomething Tolly gets into the mob by chance: he sneaks into the bar once owned by the only mother figure in his sad life, Sandy (excellent Beatrice Kay), and saves moll Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) from a terminal beating by enforcer Gus (exceptionally menacing Richard Rust). Through Cuddles, he gets the mob’s dope, and after making a savvy deal, becomes the organization’s fledging safe cracker, stealing documents that aide in keeping tabs on the cops and nosey detectives in check.

What transpires over the film’s second half is Tolly’s circuitous journey in waiting, planning, and plotting the demise of his father’s killers while collaborating in part with detective John Driscoll, played by fine character actor Larry Gates, best known as the (initially) genial shrink in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and the racist plantation owner slapped back by Virgil Tubbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967).

Fuller’s camera tracks fast, swerves around, and hides in the darkness, adding a special documentary and nourish grit to this fairly sleazy tale that feels like a dramatized version of some tight, serialized investigative piece from a big city rag. That’s a compliment, because Fuller’s approach is lean; he moves in dramatic leaps; and in the production is blessed with a fine cast of character actors who seem very comfortable playing Fuller’s weird creations.

Det. Driscoll does virtually all of the talking among his large team, and they listen and smoke profusely while he assess the unit’s progress with a sandwich and a big glass of milk. Sandy’s lack of children is counter-weighed with a bizarre, fetishistic hunger for baby dolls, including a garish, wind-up New Year’s infant that’s as creepy as her fireplace mantle, cluttered with toddler figurines and garish paintings.

Gus is a slick, neatly manicured and meticulously dressed enforcer, and whenever he slips on his very cool sunglasses, someone’s gonna die, be it bosses, or a little girl mowed down in daylight using his stylish sedan.

Almost as provocative is the character of Cuddles, a human rag doll wanting love. When she expresses simmering feelings towards Tolly, he shines a mean, derisive smile. Dorn’s most outrageous scene is the film’s most sexual, directed by Fuller with barely a care for subtext: As Tolly meets up with Cuddles in the park, Fuller makes use of a massive close-up in which the teasing moll is very clearly moving a hunk of ice shaped like an erect penis back & forth over her lips. Her upper chest is stained wet, and although she raises the frozen proboscis and tells an annoyed Tolly “Oh now, why don’t you suck on some ice?”  it’s pretty clear she’s telling him to go suck a dick (if not his own).

Much within Underworld bucks accepted genre conventions: the tough dialogue’s leaner and meaner, procedural scenes progress with jump cuts, Tolly’s quick assumptions lead to immediate action, and people die quick & fast – the latter maybe a sign of the director’s disregard for arty, overlong sequences in what’s crafted as a docu-drama. That rapidity is slowed down by one exceptional sequence in which Tolly returns to Sandy’s old bar, sneaks into the closet where he knows there’s a safe, and remains a silent observer until Gus starts to beat Cuddles. Certainly by noir conventions, it’s an extraordinarily intense sequence in which silence, sound effects, Hal Mohr’s stark B&W lighting, and Harry Sukman’s modernist score coalesce into gripping drama.

A veteran of TV productions, Sukman’s slim filmography heavily favour’s Fuller’s work, and there’s some clever (and grim) interpolations of “Auld Lang Syne” when Tolly returns to the old bar with the stolen dope. The orchestrations and thematic variations sound very contemporary, and Twilight Time’s isolated mono track (which is quite punchy and bass-friendly) makes it a treat to hear this previously unreleased score.

In spite of Fuller’s directorial quirks, Underworld feels more like a classic 1930s Warner Bros. crime drama, where bad people die, and the vigilante anti-hero doesn’t emerge unscathed. The script’s linear, the villains fairly traditional, and Tolly’s ability to think fast and save his hide are quite classical, but Fuller’s refreshing approach includes an extended period where Tolly’ maneuvers people like chess pieces, cancelling out expendable & redundant pieces until only the king is left. There’s no doubt he has just minimal fondness for Cuddles, and he’s a deeply damaged figure: born in jail, he grew up to idolize his father, and experiences great pleasure when clever maneuvering pays off.

Sony’s HD transfer for their Fuller pictures have been quite striking, but this may be the most gorgeous, perhaps because the print source is impeccable. Morh’s lighting is so sharp that pores, applied makeup, subtle shadows and harsh peaks are so fine. Fuller also seemed to insist his cast remain sweaty: Robertson’s pores are perpetually dotted with little beads, and Dorn’s close-ups are almost as massive as her co-star.

Underworld isn’t Fuller’s best, but as Martin Scorsese opines in a filmed intro for Sony’s prior 2009 Sam Fuller DVD set, the aggressiveness of the material and assaultive nature of the film linger for days. Also ported over from the DVD set is the featurette “Sam Fuller: Storyteller” which TT also included on their Crimson Kimono (1959) BR release.

The theatrical trailer has Mr. Tabloid himself (director Fuller) telling audiences they must see his searing expose that’s the product of extensive research, as evidenced by the paper organizer labeled with “Mob” and other easy-to-read categories. Of slight note is the inclusion of extra bedroom dialogue between entangled Cuddles and Tolly that was snipped from the film’s final edit.

TT’s separate releases of Underworld and Kimono featured isolated music tracks, whereas Indicator’s British all-region Blu-rays include some new material. Samuel Fuller at Columbia: 1937-1961 contains the Fuller-scripted It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Advebture in Sahara (1938), Power of the Press (1943), Scandal Sheet (1952), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Underworld U.S.A. (1961).

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:

Amazon Canada —  Amazon USA —  Amazon UK

 


 

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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