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Stars Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay.
I wish all the procrastinators who hold up movie lines over an eight-inch seating differential when making their picks on box office seating charts could find a way to work as fast as the late Samuel Fuller used to when he made his story points. For those not already attuned to the late writer-director’s specialized style, it’s perhaps instructional to watch the Martin Scorsese intro before Twilight Time’s crisp new Blu-ray of main event Underworld U.S.A. — the same brief featurette first seen on the old standard DVD Sony box set devoted to the filmmaker’s output at Columbia Pictures over an extended period. One can speculate on what the young Scorsese took from Fuller when learning his craft in the Eisenhower-and-Kennedy-era 42nd Street movie houses that often showed them. Bam, bam, BAM! — here was Fuller obviating the need to shoot three additional scenes by substituting a five-second transitional insert and some blistering editing.
In the annals of Pure Cinema, Fuller’s movies are as naturally clear as a swig from the old Coors Beer waterfall whose logo a onetime girlfriend gave me as a gift silkscreen made in her college art class. And yet, maybe there was a price to be paid for all this purity because only occasionally do I get any sustained emotional kick from them — and this despite my significant affection for (to name three) Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and (here’s one that did “get” to me the last time I saw it) the late-career White Dog, which was shamefully shafted by a litany of myopics for being racist when it was anything but. Though a lesser achievement than any of these, Underworld is one of Fuller’s better-to-best movies. Filmed, like The Crimson Kimono, for Columbia when he no longer benefited from the more elaborate budgets that Darryl Zanuck had given him at Fox, it almost always obscures the suspicion that it must have been filmed on the cheap, what with its minimal sets and capable actors who weren’t “names.”
There was never a time when I was able to conjure up too much excitement for Cliff Robertson as a movie lead, though he has his moments here as a not overly bright seeker of revenge against his father’s brutal killers; the actor does the same thing with his mouth that he did in his Oscar-winning performance in Charly to convey someone who’s not too sure of himself. And like the rest of the cast — including love interest (if that’s the term) Dolores Dorn, who’s more blonde/ethereal here than you’d expect an emotionally battered Fuller moll to be — the actors are often photographed dramatically. Hal Mohr, whose career lasted well over a half-century, was cinematographer, and I’m struck by the huge percentage of his credits that were (as here) in black-and-white — even though the color work he did was almost always standout magnificent: the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera (Oscared), its Susanna Foster follow-up The Climax and, matter of fact, King of Jazz.
The Robertson character is shaped as a teenager by witnessing, just feet away, his father’s brutal beating death in an alley, and maybe it could be worse: At least he doesn’t have to put up with Laura Ingraham ridicule on top of it. This said, the experience definitely warps him, not that any of the thugs involved change their ways over the years to end up being unjustly bumped off in subsequent reels. Some of these dispatchings are pretty nasty for the day in their methodology, with Fuller and Mohr doing a lot to suggest the pain quotient that some of these boys (now mob kingpins with silver hair) must be experiencing. I did note, however, that the purposeful killing of a young child by a young mob henchman doesn’t carry the all-out punch of a not dissimilar scene in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, which was filmed six years earlier. Truth to tell — and going back even to when I was a kid — I prefer the best of Karlson, who had previously directed Fuller’s script for the very good Scandal Sheet, to the best of Fuller. In fairness, however, Karlson’s filmography is littered a bit with what feel like impersonal “assignments,” whereas Fuller was never less than his own man 100% of the time.
As previously hinted, Dorn may be too beautiful as one whose sorry life experiences could turn a lot of people into blues singers, yet she gives more than expected as one whose head is screwed on fairly well for one who’s survived the squalor she’s seen and even been a part of first-hand. The movie’s anchor is Robertson’s been-around surrogate mother, who collects dolls as perhaps an antidote to the seaminess that’s been a part of her life for even longer and chides Robertson for being a clod for not treating Dorn any better. The role is familiar, if not quite a cliché, but Beatrice Kay is so right here that I can’t figure out why she didn’t get or take more big-screen work. She could have cornered the market on the ’60s equivalent of Jacki Weaver roles for a decade or more.
The movie loses a little steam for me after the first hour (of 98 minutes) once the table is set for where it’s inevitably going, but there is definitely pleasure here in watching Fuller deal with the no-frills basics. Columbia Pictures messed around with some really lousy color processes at this time — even John Ford had to do Two Rode Together in dribbly “Eastman Color by Pathe” after he’d either pushed for or lucked into VistaVision/Technicolor at Warners with The Searchers — but the black-and-white Columbia releases from the ’50s and ’60s always look pretty marvelous, even in DVD. This Blu-ray is no exception, and for such a clean-cut actor, we see Robertson sweating a lot in high-def, which helps by toughening up his performance.