Underworld (1927)

underworld poster 1927 movie
8.0 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 8/10
Visuals: 8/10

Classic silent gangster film

Pretty typical of the period

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Underworld

Studio:  Paramount Pictures

Genre(s):  Silent/Mystery/Suspense

Release Date(s):  August 20, 1927

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated

underworld bull weed gangster george bancroft

I’m a wacky gangster with a heart of gold!

Gangster “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) likes to take on projects.  When he decides to fix up drunken lawyer “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook), he recruits Rolls Royce into his organization.  Rolls Royce finds himself attracted to Weed’s other project “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent), but falling in love with the boss’s woman could mean problems…where do Rolls Royce loyalties lie?

Directed by Josef von Sternberg, Underworld is a black-and-white silent film and sometimes goes by the title Paying the Penalty.  The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Story.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #529) as part of the 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg collection (Criterion #528).

Silent films can be a challenge, and you sometimes have to work yourself up to them.  Josef von Sternberg is a classic director in this front, and as a maverick in a new medium, Josef von Sternberg was able to sculpt the genre he was working in.

underworld flapper moll feathers mccoy evelyn brent

Don’t hate me because I’m generic

The story ranges from interesting to typical.  You have the “good guy” gangster (people point out Weed doesn’t actually have a gang so he isn’t really a gangster) who builds people up.  He helps Feathers and he helps Rolls Royce.  It is partially a challenge to himself, but it is also seems to genuinely be helping these people.  He quickly turns on Feathers and Rolls Royce when he thinks they betrayed him, but he sacrifices himself for their happiness when he realizes they were willing to endanger themselves to help him.

Clive Brook is rather bland as the lead who has the change of fortune and Evelyn Brent is a typical gangster moll by today’s standards.  The star of the movie is George Bancroft as the boisterous and brash gangster Bull.  He has the most range in his character and his arc is helps make the movie a bit more interesting than your standard gangster movie.

underworld bull weed rolls royce geoge bancroft clive brook

Oh, Bull…I love you…I mean I love Feathers

The gangster movie was relatively fresh, and Underworld is often credited with giving it a look and style.  The “gangster” look of the characters is typically what you’d expect in an organized crime film, but the movie was doing its own thing as it created the visuals.  The movie also is noted to being one of the first (if not the first noir feature film).  The noir style was adopted by filmmakers following Underworld frequently.

Underworld isn’t my favorite silent picture, but it is a quick moving movie that is important in the history of film.  The picture is an easy watch and if you are a fan of gangster films, it is worth seeking out to see how some of the later movies emulated the style.  Josef von Sternberg was a visionary and even if you don’t love the film, you can admire his work.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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