Starring Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay, Paul Dubov, Robert Emhardt, Larry Gates, Richard Rust, Gerald Milton, Allan Gruener, David Kent
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller is known as the director who makes direct films that punch you viscerally with their ferocity, but Underworld USA is perhaps the leanest, meanest, most consistently thrilling Sam Fuller picture I’ve seen yet. Not only is this one instantly rocketing up near the top of my favorite Sam Fuller movies, there are few noir films that I enjoy as much as this one. I must admit that I’m not as well-versed as I ought to be in the noir genre, but if there were more noir films as jam-packed with excitement as Underworld USA is, that might be a different story. It’s absolutely criminal that Underworld USA isn’t better known and respected. Who knew that one of the best noirs out there was made in the ’60s?
As all Fuller films do, Underworld USA begins with a strong premise. We meet Tolly Devlin, a 14-year-old kid hiding out in an alleyway, waiting for his opportunity to lift some valuables from drunk New Year’s Eve partygoers. He is firmly entrenched in the criminal lifestyle, and soon we learn why. His father is a career criminal, but tonight is not his lucky night. Tolly watches four men beat his father to death in the alley. He only sees the face of one of the men, but when given the opportunity to tell the cops what he saw, he refuses. Instead, he bides his time as a career criminal like his father, working towards the day when he might exact revenge on the men responsible for his father’s murder.
But a simple revenge tale Underworld USA is not. It’s a lot more complex, and Tolly’s devotion to his cause is the driving force of the film. He’s willing to do anything it takes to further his quest, but what sets him apart as a character is his adept ability to manipulate people into helping him. He doesn’t go around murdering people without consequence like a traditional revenge hero, he’s above that. Tolly is a fascinating character, brought wonderfully to life by Cliff Robertson in his first starring role. Robertson ended his career by playing Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, proving once again that Fuller’s instincts were razor-sharp for picking great unknown actors instead of the hot, A-List stars of the day. In fact, the entire cast is firing on all cylinders, packing every scene with emotion, energy and excitement.
And that cinematography is to die for! Underworld USA is gorgeous to look at in virtually every shot. Even moments that could easily be mundane, such as a gangster making a telephone call in a grocery store, are brought to life in vivid detail with stunning black and white cinematography and excellent moving camerawork. Which, in turn, means that the thrilling moments of the film are turned up to 11, exploding off the screen with fiery intensity. Underworld USA also feels exceptionally modern in its technique and style, utilizing close-ups and editing in ways atypical of the period. On the DVD bonus feature with Martin Scorsese, he says that nearly every shot in Underworld USA hits like a punch, and that’s exactly right. Every image is striking and perfectly composed. Speaking of Scorsese, I’m not surprised he was featured here, as the film reminded me of something of a spiritual father to Scorsese’s work within the crime genre.
The use of New Year’s Eve, and its traditional song Auld Lang Syne, added a lot of depth to the raw storytelling. New Year’s Eve is a time of renewal, when some choose to make resolutions to change their lives and turn that clean slate of a fresh year into something positive. Tolly is offered these moments of change throughout the film, when it is up to him to choose his path in life. These choices inform the course of the film (to great result), and ultimately the final scene which brings us back full circle, scored with a music box rendition of the famous New Year’s Eve song. If you want to take the song’s use literally we can extrapolate it into a question: Should Tolly have forgotten his old acquaintances and begun a new life? Would he have been better off, or would that have been untrue to his character? Fuller didn’t write a story that people can necessarily root for — which is probably why the film sank into obscurity — but it makes for a much more intellectually exciting film. And coupled with all the visceral entertainment that Underworld USA provides, you have quite the powerhouse little film here.
Underworld USA is a fantastic crime film featuring a great journey that plays out much differently than I had expected it to. It is Fuller to the max; with the pedal to the floor he takes us on a thrilling tale of vengeance that never lets up. I’m sure I liked it more than a non-Fuller fan would, but if you dig classic crime films and you’re looking for something a little under the radar definitely give Underworld USA a shot.