Underworld, U.S.A. (1961)
Written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller
Based on articles in The Saturday Evening Post 1956 by Joseph F. Dinneen
Cinematography by Hal Mohr
“We’ve got a right to climb out of the sewer and live like other people.”
The filmography of Samuel Fuller isn’t exactly a blind spot for me, but rather a blurry one. I have seen only five of Fuller’s films and although I’ve found them all interesting, I’m not quite sure what it is about his work that makes them so different and compelling. Maybe I’ll discover that as I’m exploring Underworld, U.S.A.
Watching your father get beaten to death by a quartet of lowlife hoodlums is neither a recipe for future success nor a normal life, but that’s exactly what happens to 14-year-old Tolly Devlin. Devlin decides to dedicate his life to avenging his father’s murder, but to do that, he’s going to have to get directly involved in the criminal element that led to it.
As an adult, Devlin (Cliff Robertson, left) finds that these four killers have advanced themselves to high positions within the crime syndicate. Devlin goes so far as to purposely land himself in jail on a burglary charge in order to get close to one of the killers, a man near death at the prison hospital. This is an extraordinary scene, one that both grants and challenges our expectations of what a revenge scene should look like.
Devlin takes a lot of risks attempting to infiltrate the syndicate in order to exact his revenge on his father’s other three killers. As Devlin works his way into the trust of mob boss Connors (Robert Emhardt), he also begins to cooperate with the feds, who also want Connors and his gang. As if his life isn’t complicated enough, Devlin also saves a beautiful young woman called Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) from being killed by one of the mob members.
If all of this sounds simply too fantastic and unbelievable, I’d agree with you. Yet when you see Robertson breathe life into this role, you believe it. In what is certainly one of his finest (but woefully neglected) performances, Robertson embodies a character whose lust for revenge drives everything he does. Yet he’s more complex than that. Just from listening to his speech patterns and vocabulary, we know quickly that he’s not well-educated, but he’s very smart.
Yet we’re constantly asking ourselves if Tolly Devlin is in this only for revenge. Are his feelings for Cuddles derived from genuine concern or simply leverage? Is Devlin making a moral or personal statement in going after his father’s killers? Is he as corrupt as the syndicate he’s trying to infiltrate? Robertson’s performance suggests all of these things and more. One of the great pleasures of the film is in trying to determine what really drives this character. Is he virtuous or vengeful? Maybe he’s really not that smart. Do his emotions make him take unnecessary and foolhardy risks?
Fuller makes some very interesting (if not brilliant) decisions in his locations. We’re accustomed to seeing the mob (especially the guys doing most of the dirty work) in squalid, sleazy locales. Yet we frequently see mob boss Conners and his men amidst more upscale surroundings and, interestingly enough, at a swimming pool. It’s almost as if the clean nature of a swimming pool – and the implied purity of water – is an attempt by Conners (usually wearing a white robe) to “cleanse” his image from a master criminal to something more respectable. (The swimming pool also provides the backdrop for one of the film’s best scenes.) Yet it’s clear these guys are heartless killers.
In one darkly comedic scene, Connors orders his boys to blow up a man behind the wheel of his car. Just as Connors sees the job’s been done, he grabs a cigarette and turns to the burning car, barking to one of his underlings: “Gimmie a light!” In another scene, Gus (Richard Rust, above, in a superb performance), one of the mob’s enforcers, ruthlessly deals with a little girl who could identify him. Gus is the epitome of a professional hit man: unflinching, devoid of conscience, and absolutely immovable in carrying out his missions. Fuller and cinematographer Hal Mohr provide stark, high-contract shots that seem to literally leap off the screen, easily as effective now as they were 50 years ago.
Speaking of cinematography, Mohr had an extraordinary long career dating back to 1912 and is one of a handful of cinematographers with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Underworld, U.S.A. was one of the last films he shot and it appeared after Mohr had shot a long line of TV episodes. In fact, much of Underworld, U.S.A. looks like a television episode. I do not mean that as a criticism, but rather a compliment. The photography is efficient and unadulterated, especially in the interior shots where crime and corruption make comfortable places of familiarity seem claustrophobic and volatile. Yet at other times, the cinematography shimmers with stark contrasts, as when Devlin witnesses his father’s death in shadows early in the film and the action scenes on the streets. Mohr’s career spanned six decades for a reason.
Far from a simple revenge film, Underworld, U.S.A. shows the underbelly of American crime operating under the guise of respectability, made all the more jarring when you consider that in 1961 the country was riding high on the optimism of John F. Kennedy and the growing up of its first baby boomers. Fuller makes us see that, oh yes, the corruption is still there; it never left us. He also makes us wonder if we, in the place of Tolly Devlin, might follow the same path.
Underworld, U.S.A. is currently streaming on Filmstruck, but not for much longer. This film, as well as several other Fuller titles (The Steel Helmet, The Baron of Arizona, and The Big Red One) will be leaving Filmstruck on June 15, 2017.
Photos: World Cinema, Brandon’s Movie Memory, Critikat