The histories of film I read years ago often touted Underworld as a precursor of the classic gangster films of the 1930s, but now that I've seen it I'm reminded more of the crime films that came before. For starters, the lead criminal "Bull" Weed (Bancroft) isn't a gangster in our racketeering sense of the word, as far as I can tell. Nor does the film call him a gangster; the term of art is "crook," and that gives you an idea of his actual activity. Bull is an urban bandit, the sort of fellow you might stumble across in the middle of the night charging out of a bank with a safe in his arms. That's pretty much how the film's hero encounters him. This hero (Clive Brook) is a staggering drunk who knows the notorious criminal on sight and calls him by name in mid-abscondment. Realizing that he can't leave a witness walking the streets, but perhaps in too much of a hurry to shoot him on the spot, Bull grabs the lush and drags him back to his headquarters to debrief him. The rummy is desperate for drink but unafraid of Bull and resentful of any hint that he might squeal on the crook. He calls himself a virtual Rolls-Royce for silence, and while the claim would seem to be belied by the way he called Bull's name out on the street, the easily-impressed Bull renames him "Rolls-Royce" by way of adopting him as a stooge.
Bull finds Rolls work as a janitor in a speakeasy he frequents with his crony Slippy and his girlfriend Feathers (Evelyn Brent). He sets Rolls up in an apartment that doubles as a safe-house for Bull, with a secret passage to his warehouse of swag. Rolls is an intellectual with a cunning streak, suggesting a simple way for Bull to frame his enemy Buck Mulligan (not the stately, plump one) for a jewel robbery. He stocks his hovel with books and claims not to be interested in women, but despite the intellectual gulf separating them, he and Feathers begin to fall for one another, risking Bull's jealous wrath. That wrath can be fatal, as Mulligan learns when he drunkenly tries to rape Feathers at the annual gangster's ball.
Imprisoned and condemned to death for killing Mulligan, Bull seems less concerned about his own life than with the thought, provoked by the sight of one dance at the ball, that Rolls and Feathers might be two-timing him. In fact, they are thinking about leaving town together, but both feel that they owe Bull too much to leave him to his fate. Rolls puts together a breakout plan, but as it falls apart Bull takes matters into his own hands and effects his own escape, now determined to destroy the two people he cares most about, the ones who supposedly betrayed him....
Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook in Underworld. The casting of the 40 year old Brook as the male romantic lead means we're still far from the glamorization of gangsters to come.
Brent and George Bancroft in the middle of a police siege that isn't the only detail of Underworld to anticipate Howard Hawks's Scarface (see below for something else.)
Sternberg tells the story with all the fluency of late silent cinema. He doesn't go overboard with Murnau-influenced camera movements, but when his camera does move, it counts. Instead, he relies on close-ups to catch every subtle or not-so-subtle shift in the three leads' emotions as they interact with each other. The director shows off his dedication to faces most flamboyantly during the gangster's ball sequence, aka the "Devil's Carnival," with a rapid-fire montage of a few dozen mugs and molls gaping at their own faces in a mirror in somewhat less than a minute. It's a stunning if superfluous moment in an otherwise relatively unshowy film, but it underscores Sternberg's emphasis on the face as his primary instrument here.
Larry Semon as Bull's pal Slippy. Semon was for a short while considered a formidable rival to if not a peer of the canonical silent clowns -- Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, etc., --before making a version of The Wizard of Oz that has a reputation as the Heaven's Gate of silent comedy. Underworld finds Semon on the comeback trail after losing his independence, but with little more than a year to live. Paramount still considered him a draw; he's fourth billed and equal to Bancroft, Brook and Brent in most advertising. He's clearly in the picture for no other purpose than comedy relief, though you can see the possibility that his character might have been the one to betray the breakout plan to the police. But while he shows some simple dexterity and occasional good timing, he really isn't that funny. For Sternberg's purposes, Semon's there because he has a funny face, albeit with less makeup than he used on his own projects. That brings us back to the director's faith in the expressiveness of faces and the grotesque milieu that marks Underworld as part of an older crime genre rather than a precursor of a new one.
However you categorize it, Underworld is a treat to look at for its cinematography, which arguably looks beyond '30s gangsterdom to influence '40s noir, as well as its razor-sharp editing. It's ultimately too melodramatic and somewhat maudlin to rank among the truly great crime films, but it's an admirable showcase for the storytelling sophistication silent film had achieved by the time sound decreed its extinction. It's one of three silents in a Sternberg box set from Criterion, along with The Last Command (which I saw on tape years ago) and another crime drama, The Docks of New York. If you try one via Netflix, as I did, you'll probably end up wanting to see the others.
Gangsters got more ambitious later, but the genre had to start somewhere. By the way, Howard Hawks is listed at IMDB as an uncredited contributor to Underworld's scenario, while Scarface scripter Ben Hecht gets story credit for the Sternberg film. I guess Underworld was influential after all.