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.
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.
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.