The atmospheric and explosive Underworld is both a forerunner of the hard-boiled gangster cycle of the thirties and a thoroughly Sternbergian stylistic performance, what he called “an experiment in photographic violence.” The scenario sets up a triangle involving robber Bull Weed (George Bancroft); his girl Feathers (proto-Dietrich Evelyn Brent), who “wears feathers all over”; and Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), a brooding, bookish drunk who assesses Bull as “Attila at the gates of Rome.” Together they play out a fable of rivalry and redemption. Underworld is based on a treatment by Ben Hecht, whose reporter days in Chicago gave him firsthand knowledge of the gangland setting; although he disapproved of Sternberg's far from journalistic approach to the material, Hecht accepted an Oscar for the script. The film's amalgamation of snappy urbanisms and stylized shadows was such a surprise success that the theater where it premiered was forced to stay open all night.

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