Also, the runtime is wrong on this flixster page. It's a full 80 minute film.
"Underworld" gets off to a slow, awkward start before building to a memorable climax. What the movie is most concerned with is the concept of loyalty amongst the criminal classes where it is an even more valuable commodity than gold or friendship, for that matter. In this shadow world, it is complicated by the fact that these criminals are putting on a facade to convince the police and public that they are respectable.(Notice Buck's flower shop.) With all of that going on, it's hard for the hangers-on to tell how real the emotions sometimes are. Alternately, the criminals don't even try to fool each other, as the bribing for the queen of the ball is totally out in the open. And when Rolls Royce says he is not interested in women, is he saying what I think he is saying?
Of course, there are von Sternberg's trademarks all over this film: the soft focus for emphasis, revealing close-ups, the expressionistic lighting, the heightened editing patterns, etc. He directs this film was an assured confidence -- which is kind of astonishing considering how much ground he was breaking. Those who enjoy the prohibition-era gangster films may be hesitant to watch a silent film without the trademark colorful dialogue of a James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson, but don't worry, this film more than makes up for it. Tough, tense, and tightly-written, every gangster film you've ever seen owes a serious debt to Underworld.
The visuals take a lead in this one. I especially like the scenes of the gangsters ball and and even the simple gun fights really take off. For a silent film, it FEELS loud.
I want to watch this one again soon. I can only see my rating going higher on this one.
Here Sternberg, working from an Oscar winning (largely altered) script by Ben Hecht, literally invents the gangster genre with his triangle of Chicago toughs (George Bancroft, Clive Brook, and moll Evelyln Brent), partying, glancing, posing, posturing the night away in a series of brilliantly lit interiors, in between jewel heists and attempted hits.
Bancroft, all gawd, smiles, and suspicions, is the hammiest of the actors, though he commands the screen whenever he needs to explode, and near the end, in an apartment shoot-out cribbed by Howard Hawks for "Scarface", when he realizes the folly of his ways, and the growing bond between Brook and Brent, he's somewhat touching, in a sacrificial, ironic way.
But that's Sternberg in a shell, a glorious surface of beauty and mayhem, with a biting core of cynicism and irony in the middle; it worked in 1927, and it's amazingly refreshing 80 years later.
I have absolutely no problems whatsoever with Underworld - it looked great, the writing was solid, the characters were appropriately likable and unlikable, etc. Its only flaw is one it could never have foreseen - forever being below that vampire/werewolf movie when you search for it on imdb.