Josef von Sternberg’s riveting breakthrough is widely considered the film that launched the American gangster genre as we know it. George Bancroft plays heavy Bull Weed, a criminal kingpin whose jealous devotion to his moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), gets him into hot water with a rival hood and, ultimately, the authorities. Further complicating matters is the attraction that blossoms between Feathers and an alcoholic former lawyer (Clive Brook). With its supple, endlessly expressive camera work and tightly wound screenplay based on a story by legendary scribe Ben Hecht (who won an Oscar for it the first year the awards were given), Underworld solidified von Sternberg’s place as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents. –The Criterion Collection
Born in Vienna, director Joseph von Sternberg spent much of his youth in New York; his entrée into show business was as a film repairer for the World Film Company of Fort Lee, NJ. After returning to Austria to complete his education, he joined the U.S. Signal Corps as a photographer in 1917, then took assistant director jobs after the end of World War I. It was either actor Elliot Dexter or an anonymous producer who suggested that Sternberg would go farther in the industry if he affixed a “von” to his last name, à la Erich von Stroheim. Von Sternberg went whole hog in creating a “genius” veneer, adopting a strutting, imperious attitude, dressing in regulation beret and puttees, and even growing an obnoxious little mustache so he would be certain to be hated and feared. This posturing tended to obscure his genuine cinematic gifts, especially in the field of photographic lighting and composition (at one point, he was the only director permitted to carry an American Society of Cinematographers… read more
Not von Sternberg's best, but still a very good film, solidifying many of the familiar archetypes and storylines of gangster movies for years to come. While the story may not be as compelling as some of von Sternberg's best, the artistry is still evident for all to see - just watch the sequence when a drunken Bull Weed stumbles to the aid of his girlfriend. It just _looks_ like a von Sternberg sequence.
"Criterion's new box set of three silent films by Josef von Sternberg — Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York
Above: Betty Compson and George Bancroft in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York (1928). Courtesy of the Criterion Collection. George
Here Sternberg, working… read review