UNDERWORLD U.S.A.: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures, 1961) Twilight Time
The movies of Samuel Fuller are today widely revered for their utter lack of conformity to what was, at least during Fuller’s generation, a more genteel approach to storytelling in Hollywood. Let’s get real: the so-called ‘golden era’s’ natural affinity for glamour was decidedly at odds with Fuller’s pulp-inspired narratives; also, his unique and undiluted execution of a good story, often on low-to-‘no’ budgets, but always with a visual flair, bordering on the tabloid-esque, teetering dangerously close to the salacious and tawdry. In some ways, Fuller’s stylistic elements hark all the way back to Warner Bros. pre-code crime/thrillers, with edgier protagonists plumbed from the marginalized fringes of society, chronically to be faced with their own mortality. Exhibit ‘A’ – 1961’s Underworld U.S.A., a picture to pit one vengeful orphan, now in the full-flourish of manhood, hell-bent on exacting his pound of flesh from the kingpins earlier responsible for the demise of his father. Underworld U.S.A. is very loosely based on an article by Joseph F. Dineen; Fuller, more directly influenced by Riley Cooper’s novel, ‘Here Is to Crime’. Executed with the same invigorating and sadistic manner as his war movies, Fuller’s zest for mob stories, gleaned from various exposés in The Saturday Evening Post, rips the lid off the tired cliché ‘crime doesn’t pay’ (in fact, it challenges this theory), transforming the character of Tolly Devlin (David Kent, as a boy/Cliff Robertson as the more mature delinquent out for blood) from modest hoodlum, with a streak of cold-blooded rage, into a one-man arsenal dedicated to an insidiously cruel brand of vigilantism.
As portrayed by Robertson, Tolly teeters dangerously close to being a psychopath. Indeed, the passions of youth become perverted by experiences no child should ever have to face; Tolly, reacting and purely motivated by personal satisfaction from watching his enemies squirm. Because Robertson and Fuller are so intent on portraying Tolly Devlin as a misfit, and not even one able to unearth a sense of redemption before meeting with his own inevitable/untimely ‘end’, our alignment with Robertson’s reprobate plays far more affectingly from our present age, that embraces vigilantism for its own sake, than it arguably did in 1961. Ingeniously, Fuller and Robertson never allow Tolly Devlin to transgress off the edge into complete psychosis, making his inhumanity even more shockingly perverse. Underworld, U.S.A. presents us with a thoroughly impassive society where basic human decency has no legal tender. It also exposes the legitimate channels of the law, in this case – the FBI – as a bunch of ineffectual observers to crime, always come too late to make their mark and ‘protect the innocent’. Like their counterparts in the underworld, these lawmen use whatever means necessary to pursue and defeat the mob.
As the picture is ‘studio-bound’ up to a point, though hardly subscribing to the thematic precepts of ‘studio-sanctioned’ product from its vintage, Underworld U.S.A. has the surface sheen of an A-list/B-budgeted noir thriller, thanks in part to Hal Mohr’s superb B&W cinematography, compounded by Harry Sukman’s pulsating score. This punctuates Fuller’s penchant for forceful camera movements that strip away this mask of mid-town respectability. And, in hindsight, Underworld U.S.A. is probably Fuller’s most fierce and scornful movie. Its treatment of crime as a business like any other, operating under the economic umbrella, merely to ‘making money,’ however crookedly, was then a novelty (especially in the movies). Through the passage of time it seems only more unfeelingly now to grey up rather than delineate Mafioso thugs in their three-piece suits, far more closely aligned with these respected captains of industry than anyone back in ’61 might have surmised. Moreover, Fuller’s examination of sin in hard focus thoroughly contradicts the post-war era’s pie-eyed optimism, blindly venturing into uncharted territory at odds with ‘the new promise’ of the Kennedy presidency that, at least until Nov. 22, 1963, appeared a veritably panacea and the absolute fulfillment of the American dream never more closely at hand.
Fuller’s crushing counter-wish fulfillment to the naïve nation – is, at best, a thorough slap in the kisser, represented in Underworld U.S.A. by the bloat of Earl Connors (Robert Emhardt as the road show Sidney Greenstreet of his generation). Connors, astutely described by FBI agent, John Driscoll (Larry Gates), as “shrewd, warm, charitable… an animal”, is the proverbial puppet master whose only recourse to the lies spun by Tolly’s enterprising infiltration of his organization is to systematically assassinate the men perversely loyal to his willful decay of America’s social fabric and justice system. Tolly’s erosion of Connor’s trust in his witless micro-managers systematically deflates the pomposity and security once galvanized as a well-oiled and enviable criminal organization. Too busy chronically soaking his obesity in the comfort of an indoor swimming pool or stuffing candy bars into his pudgy cheeks, Connor’s leaves the real dirty work to his goon squad, including Gela (Paul Dubov), who runs narcotics; Gunther (Gerald Milton), the labor rackets, and, Smith (Allan Gruener) - prostitution. Connor’s right-hand man is Gus Cottahee (steely-eyed Richard Rust), whose first bungle is to narrowly avoid killing a naïve paid escort, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn). Rather unexpectedly and chivalrously, Tolly spares Cuddles from certain death, then keeps the bimbette hidden in the care of a reformed hooch dancer, Sandy (Beatrice Kay) – the only real mother he has ever known.
It is interesting to situate the circumstances that preceded the making of the Underworld U.S.A., as they likely helped to shape Fuller’s appreciation – or lack thereof – for the inherent, if misfiring goodness of mankind; Fuller, simply walking away from his crumbling marriage to Martha Downes with barely the shirt off his back, and losing his only other female support – his mother – at age 85; promised his ‘big break’ to direct a passion project, the WWII actioner/drama, The Big Red One, over at Warner Bros. – shortly thereafter, to be chronically delayed, then reneged outright (just as well, since Fuller had his misgivings about the studio’s decision to cast John Wayne in the lead. Arguably, Wayne’s participation would have crippled Fuller’s impassioned take of gritty survival as just another flag-waver in Wayne’s ever-expanding canon of gung-ho actioners.). Ultimately, Fuller would make the movie he wanted to in 1980 with Lee Marvin as his star instead. But in 1960, Fuller had instantly, and rather spectacularly fallen from grace; from an ostensibly ‘good life’ with a stable home and much publicized in the trades ‘big picture deal’ at one of the majors to a washed-up has-been with seemingly nothing to recommend his future in the industry except a typewriter once belonging to Mark Twain.
Fortunately, producer Ray Stark was looking for a man of Fuller’s talents to helm his movie over at Columbia; a project initially optioned by Humphrey Bogart, though unfulfilled before the actor’s untimely death from cancer in 1957. Thereafter, the rights to Underworld U.S.A. were acquired by Sam Briskin, heir to Columbia’s throne after studio head, Harry Cohn’s passing in ‘58. Hooking Fuller on Dineen’s Saturday Evening Post short story, Stark encouraged the ambitious screenwriter/director to go to town on his first draft. The proliferation of prose that immediately followed caught Stark’s interest but equally offended the studio hierarchy, who suggested Fuller’s intent was to go against a time-honored maxim in Hollywood by inferring that crime paid. Fuller’s nonplused reply, “It does!” did little to further his cause. At a stalemate with producers, Fuller was forced to toggle back this message, excising subplots that involved hookers striking for ‘better working conditions’ and a heroin addict’s withdrawal. Eventually, Fuller lit on an idea, transposing the age-old Count of Monte Cristo narrative of a ‘son avenging his slain father’ into the unvarnished modern age; Tolly Devlin remade, not as the altruistic figure of divine vengeance, but a rather shiftless, contemptable and thoroughly heartless ne'er-do-well, telescopically fanatical in his zeal to destroy the men responsible for his father’s murder.
A modest programmer for Columbia, Underworld U.S.A. is immeasurably blessed by Cliff Robertson’s central performance as the scheming Tolly Devlin, who plays the mobsters off one another in a dangerous game of ‘kill me first’. Robertson’s career has long-since, and rather unfairly been overshadowed by his contemporaries, I suspect, because Robertson’s chameleon-like presence so completely adapts to most any role effortlessly. Therefore, his screen ‘persona’ – in an age where ‘personalities’ reigned supreme – is difficult, if not impossible to peg. Reconcile, if you can, his poignant performance in Charly (1968) with the ruthless malcontent he plays herein. Yet, for all his stone-cold wickedness, Robertson manages to infuse Tolly Devlin with an oddly disturbing animal magnetism. It isn’t sex appeal, but it remains deliciously attractive to the wrong kind of girl; the only kind who could mistake such a borderline psychopath as her knight in shining armor.
What a wonderfully adept and malleable actor! And under Fuller’s guidance, Robertson psychotic thrives as the only viable alternative to an organization so amoral and perverse it takes pure evil to dismantle it. Even more disturbing, G-man Driscoll avoids any sanctimonious critique of Tolly’s tactics or motives. He simply wants the job done by whatever means. Robertson’s rough and ragged avenging angel is counterbalanced by Robert Emhardt’s poisonous slimy toad. How perfectly putrefied is Emhardt’s Earl Connor – a fat cat (literally) who typifies all that is venal and falteringly ferocious about the underworld into which we are about to descend. If Connor is the divisive pulse of this organization, then the arteries that flow from his corrosive command center are gradually afflicted by another diseased mind stacking the odds against the house.
Beginning some twenty years in the past, Fuller unravels the yarn of an impressionable monster, Tolly Devlin, age 14 and already a pro at rolling drunks for some quick cash. Alas, Tolly arrives home, or rather, the back of a seedy nightclub, just in time to witness his father being beaten to death by shadowy figures in the alley. Wounded by this loss, just not enough to help kindhearted lawman, John Driscoll identify his father’s assassins, Tolly vows to hunt down these men on his own terms and in his own good time. Alas, the kid is a bad apple and up to no good, in and out of orphanages, reformatories, and finally, with the passage of time, a stint in the state prison where he inadvertently comes face to face with one of the men, Vic Farrar (Peter Brocco) who killed his father. Vic is dying. Tolly ingratiates himself to Prison Dr. Meredith (Henry Norell), gaining access to the infirmary and encouraging the old wreck to confess his sins by divulging the names of the other hitmen. Shortly thereafter, Tolly is released on bail and taken into Sandy’s home. In the interim, she has given up the trashy life of a hooch dancer and retired to a modest bungalow. Sandy only wishes the best for Tolly. It is a genuine pity he never wants as much for himself. But Tolly is driven – not to succeed, rather to destroy all he touches.
Breaking into the former club where Sandy used to work, Tolly witnesses Gus Cottahee narrowly carry out an order to kill a naïve call girl, simply for fumbling a drug mule’s job. The girl, Cuddles, is spared by Tolly’s quick thinking and a display of his fists that leaves Gus momentarily bewildered. Tolly takes Cuddles back to Sandy’s place; the two women bonding in their mutual affection for Tolly – who neither appreciates their concern nor endeavors to do right by their wishes for his safe return. On the contrary, Tolly leverages his contempt for the women in his life (veiled promises to make an honest woman of Cuddles) with his insidious and systematic demolition of the mob, turning goon against goon with Driscoll’s complicity. The ruse works spectacularly and Earl Connors begins to ‘like’ this rough n’ ready slickster who seems to have his finger on the pulse of his organization. Eventually, Driscoll balks at Tolly’s plan to leverage a phony report to get Connors to kill Gela, the last of his unwitting accomplices.
Instead, Tolly sets up Driscoll to confront Gela, presumably for a plea of immunity if he turns states’ evidence, knowing Connor has Gus tailing Gela’s every move. Afterward, it’s a short connect-the-dots line of misdirection to convince Connor to put another hit on Gela. Forging another fake report, Tolly gets Connor to finish off virtually all of his sincerely loyal underlings, leaving Tolly to take care of Gus, then simply stroll into the penthouse for the ultimate revenge – Connor’s murder by drowning in the pool. Too bad for Tolly he has not thoroughly dispatched Connor’s bodyguard, Barney (Neyle Morrow) first; the crackerjack shot promptly pumping a fatal bullet into Tolly’s chest. Retreating to street level, Tolly collapses in the alley not far from where his father died as Sandy and Cuddles lament his loss and police sirens begin to peel in the distance.
Despite the absence of Fuller’s aforementioned plans to include subplots devoted to prostitution and drug abuse, Underworld U.S.A. still packs a wallop, what with murder after murder, creatively staged (I’m partial to the shockingly brutal assassination of Gunther, beaten to near unconsciousness, but still very much alive when Gus douses his Chevy in gasoline and sets both it and him ablaze as Connor looks on with complete satisfaction); Connor’s cartel thinly concealed by charitable works even as he insidiously orders his gunsel, Gus to run down the 14-year old girl of one of his competitors as her own mother looks on in horror. Connor is a grotesque in the long line of ‘marginally’ attractive mob bosses who populate such noir thrillers. The wrinkle herein: there is virtually nothing appealing about this slovenly pig of a human being as he continues to peddle sex and dope to America’s youth. Equally as intriguing here is the gay subtext between the overtly masculine Tolly who plays upon the ‘fascination’ with him harbored by the slighter, but slick Gus – whose dark shades mask more than his killer instinct. In the final analysis, Underworld U.S.A. is a superior noir crime caper/revenge tragedy.
Arriving on Blu-ray via Twilight Time’s association with Sony Pictures, Underworld U.S.A. sports a winning 1080p transfer with zero complaints. TT’s hi-def release easily bests the tired old Columbia DVD that suffered from telecine green tint. In its place, we get a subtly nuanced B&W image showing off Hal Mohr’s cinematography to its very best advantage and virtually free of age-related artifacts. The image is so refined, and sports a superb layer of indigenous grain, it easily belies the film’s almost fifty-year vintage. The DTS 2.0 mono is expertly rendered with plenty of lossless aggression from SFX and Harry Sukman’s pulsating underscore. Extras are limited to Sam Fuller Storyteller, at 25-mins., an all too brief account of Fuller’s life in pictures with snippets and sound bites from Fuller’s wife, Christa, daughter Samantha, and filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Tim Robbins, and the late and very great Curtis Hanson. Also on tap, a brief introduction by Scorsese, an isolated score, and finally, liner notes from TT’s resident historian, Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)