To tell you the truth, though I loved Samuel Fuller’s 1953 classic Pickup on South Street, perhaps because the last Fuller I saw was the wildly uneven White Dog (1982), I wasn’t expecting much from Underworld U.S.A. (1961).
I was in the mood to watch something really enjoyable—whatever “enjoyable” means. I recently saw Powell and Pressberger’s ballet classic The Red Shoes (1947) over a Friday and Saturday (such has my movie watching habit become these days with Netflix online), and that was enjoyable, i.e., beautifully photographed, very well scripted, sensual, romantic, moving and engrossing. The next night I watched Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1964); though very well acted, stunningly photographed, constantly surprising and very funny, that was not quite so enjoyable.
The thing about that movie, and about Godard in general, is that he’s difficult. He doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself. He wants you to be kept off-balance and wondering what the frack is going to happen next and why you’re even watching this movie. I’m glad I saw it and I did enjoy certain aspects of it, especially all the aforementioned, but I didn’t relax while I was watching it. So last night I wanted a break. I didn’t want to have a movie fight me and force me to play a role in the watching of it. I wanted something quite the opposite, a movie that took me by force, if necessary, along with it.
Fuller is a character in Pierrot le fou—that is, he plays himself—which is probably what inspired me to pick this film last night. His most famous line from that movie: “Film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word: emotion.” That, in one word, is Underworld U.S.A. Cliff Robertson stars as safecracker Tolly Devlin, out to avenge his father’s murder, which he witnessed as a young delinquent, by four hoods who rise to positions of power in an unnamed city’s underworld. As in Pickup, this outsider plays the authorities (like a violin) against the bad guys to get what he wants. Delores Dorn co-stars as a hooker-turned-informant with the adorably weird name Cuddles, whom Tolly rescues from the gang and with whom he soon falls in love. (See? Emotion!)
I was hooked (mostly) from the classically noir opening that alternated shots between drunken New Year’s revelry and a close up of a young delinquent’s eyes. Perhaps still under the influence of Godard, however, I was conscious of the artifice—the this-is-a-movie-ness—of what I was watching, the almost hand-made quality of the early scenes.
The kid who plays young Tolly at 14 (David Kent) does the best he can—but what do you want? He’s a kid in a Sam Fuller movie! You notice his awkwardness in an exposition scene with old pro Beatrice Kay. She has to do a little heavy lifting to carry the scene as the nurturing mother-figure Sandy, a gin-joint proprietress, as she tends to a wound over the kid’s eye and they talk about the past. The scene is interrupted by the spectacular shadow play of the murder that sets the story in motion, but the kid has to react to his father’s murder, so the illusion that the movie is about to rock and roll is popped. You hold your breath and root for a halfway decent cry of shock to emerge from Kent’s inexperienced throat (and you kind of get what you want).
There’s a roughness to this introductory portion of the film that is charming but, well, noticeable. I like roughness and rawness in a movie, especially from that era when Hollywood tried to stamp out idiosyncrasy and condition the public to expect a uniform seamlessness from its product. The French New Wave laughed at and rebelled against this conditioning (which it had little choice but to do, anyway, considering the budgets les auteurs were forced to work with). But as I say, I was not in the mood to be deconditioned last night.
I don’t think Fuller was a director who necessarily wanted to decondition audiences from expecting entertainment in addition to all the incidental significance that naturally poured into his heart-felt films. Famous among his friends for loving a good “yarn,” the tabloid journalist in him, no doubt, understood the irresistibility of sensation that draws a viewer helplessly into a movie.
When Robertson comes into the picture as Tolly grown up and doing time, the obviousness of the artifice dissolves (mostly) and the lurid story’s momentum assuredly breaks down the viewer’s resistance. Robertson exudes a wicked self-confidence and dark humor in his single-minded pursuit of his “job,” as he calls it—offing the four guys who killed his pop. He’s especially good playing against the women in the film. Kay, whose polish as an actress overpowered Kent’s awkwardness in the early scenes, meets her match and then some in Robertson. Sandy is the tether straining to ground the ex-con in social responsibility. Dorn’s Cuddles is less interested in responsibility than pure sex (she likes the way Tolly kisses, she repeats breathlessly), but Tolly views her desires as a distraction from master plan. The viewer, too, is much more interested in finding out how Tolly realizes his plan than in his settling down.
The rest of the film’s performances range from top-notch—particularly Richard Rust as Gus, a suave, occasionally likable but fundamentally cold-blooded (and versatile) hitman—to serviceable. I was a little disappointed, frankly, by veteran character actor Richard Eberhardt as the Big Boss Earl Connors; he didn’t quite reach the pinnacle of menace that I like in my villains. But you don’t watch a B movie for brilliant acting anyway, and when you get brilliant acting from them, as you do in this film, it’s all the more pleasurable.
Key to Fuller’s assault on the viewer’s distance from the movie, the dialogue packs a punch, hard-boiled with no effort. Some film noir scripts can sound like they were written by a Harvard with a slang dictionary. Fuller’s come honestly, stinking of cigar smoke and bourbon, direct from the street.
There’s a lot more one can say about this film, especially about the moral complexities and ambiguous stance toward society that it shares with Pickup. But my purpose was simply to consider its pleasures, and that is best done through viewing it. Underworld USA is available to be viewed for free here.