RSS

The Underworld Story

03 Jul

Things are tough all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.

There are plenty of examples of film noir weaving contemporary social issues into the tales featured. Through the 1950s it’s noticeable how the whole matter of organized crime came to play a more significant part in the world of noir. Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) is an early example of this trend, although it also takes a look at journalistic ethics, racial prejudice, class divisions, and oblique references to the blacklist. This all adds up to a potent and varied cocktail, one which could easily have become overwhelming in its efforts to cover so many bases. However, the script remains clearly focused throughout and the end product is therefore very satisfying.

Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is the classic slick city reporter, a man for whom the chance of a scoop and the accompanying paycheck trumps all other considerations. This absence of moral qualms is clearly illustrated by the opening scene of the movie, which sees a mob informant gunned down on the court steps. The responsibility for this killing is laid largely at the feet of Reese, who wrote the story tipping the gangsters off to the location of the stool pigeon. Still, Reese is one of those guys who’s not quite as smooth as he thinks he is – all the angling and sharp patter can’t disguise an unfortunate tendency for things to blow up in his face. While his exclusive story had lethal consequences for one man, it also leads to Reese getting his marching orders. Worse is to come though when he finds his name is poison and he can’t get a job on any paper in town. So what’s a guy to do under the circumstances? In this case, he pays a visit to Carl Durham (Howard da Silva), the mob boss he unwittingly helped out when he put the finger on the informant. With a modest payoff in his pocket from Durham, Reese takes himself to a small town where he can purchase a half interest in a local newspaper. Almost immediately it looks like our “hero” has landed on his feet again. No sooner has he talked the owner, Cathy Harris (Gale Storm), into accepting his offer than a major story breaks right under their noses. The daughter-in-law of a local blue-blood publisher, E J Stanton (Herbert Marshall), has been murdered and Reese scents the opportunity to make journalistic capital out of this. Initially, it looks like a gift, and the revelation that the deceased’s maid may have been involved adds a bit of spice. In reality though, it’s another situation which Reese has misjudged and he soon finds himself getting out of his depth. The draw of a society killing and the allegations that the perpetrator may have been a black woman offers the chance for exploitation and therefore money. But it’s soon made clear to the viewer that the real killer was someone else, someone much closer to the victim. Reese’s cynical and insincere crusade is about to backfire on him as dirty family secrets, racism and an unholy alliance between the mob and old money combine to present the kind of threat his sharp spiel won’t be enough to deflect.

The Underworld Story was one of the last films Cy Endfield made before the blacklist and the HUAC hearings would force him out of Hollywood and send him across the ocean to pursue his career in Britain. It’s easy to see how, in the volatile and paranoid climate which prevailed then, a film like this would have drawn some unwelcome attention. The main protagonist is a man who has himself been essentially blacklisted by his own industry, who digs under the apparently respectable facade of a pillar of civilized democracy (the free press) and reveals corruption, duplicity and outright criminality. The racial aspect adds another layer of unpleasantness, though this is only a small part of the story and handled in a fairly half-hearted fashion anyway. No, the real issue here is the subversion of the press and moral bankruptcy of those holding sway over public opinion. Essentially we’re shown three separate yet interrelated faces of the fourth estate: the weakness and ethical ambivalence of Marshall, the crass opportunism of Duryea, and the naive idealism of Storm. Endfield contributed to the script sourced from a story by Craig Rice (which probably accounts for the touches of light humor sprinkled throughout) and the critique of a society manipulated by corrupt and powerful men is always to the fore – the scene where Marshall sits around with local dignitaries and cronies working out how best to rid themselves of the troublesome Duryea is effective in its repugnance. The cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez, resulting in some nicely lit images which add to the noir atmosphere.

Dan Duryea was a fine piece of casting in the role of Reese, his frequent portrayal of charming villains setting up the ambivalence of his character well. Reese, at least until he experiences a late change of heart (or maybe even an acquisition of one), is basically an anti-heroic figure. His main concern for most of the film’s running time is the state of his own bank account, and Duryea was very good at getting across the chiseling soul of Reese. Even as he’s doing his level best to sell out sympathetic characters, you can’t help but like him – not an easy role to pull off but one which was tailor-made for Duryea. Herbert Marshall was another guy skilled at playing complex figures, and he had a real knack for displaying a kind of outraged dignity. Again, you shouldn’t really feel anything much for him but Marshall’s talent for bringing a human face to Stanton means his dilemma becomes understandable. For me, a large part of the film’s success comes down to the way both Marshall and Duryea portray the various shades of gray of their respective characters. There’s good support provided by Gale Storm as Duryea’s partner in the newspaper and love interest, but her role is essentially one-dimensional. The same could be said for the other cast members I guess: Howard da Silva has a high time chewing up the scenery as the grinning and uncouth gang boss and acts as a great contrast to Marshall’s refinement, while Michael O’Shea’s DA is mostly driven by vindictiveness, particularly where Duryea is concerned. One of the oddest casting choices was Mary Anderson as the black maid everyone suspects of the murder. The fact that Anderson is actually white, and never really looks anything else (there was no overt black face make-up involved) despite everyone alluding to her race, is a bit distracting. The racial matter does form part of the story but it’s of secondary importance at best. Had it been more central, then the whiteness of the actress would have been more problematic. Anderson’s work is perfectly good but I did wonder why she was chosen for that part in the first place.

The Underworld Story is out on DVD via the Warner Archive in the US and also on pressed disc in Spain from Absolute. I have the Spanish release and it looks pretty good – there are a few isolated instances of print damage but overall the image is quite strong. The  picture is sharp throughout and the contrast levels show off the noir cinematography nicely. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub and subtitles are optional – they can be disabled from the setup menu. This is a solid film noir from a director I like and it’s always a pleasure to see Dan Duryea in a leading role. He’ll be best remembered for his villainous turns but I enjoy watching him in those rare movies where he got to play the good guy. The Underworld Story isn’t the best known film noir out there but it’s a good production and worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, director or star.

 

About these ads
 
41 Comments

Posted by on July 3, 2014 in 1950s, Cy Endfield, Dan Duryea, Film Noir

 

Tags: , , ,

41 responses to “The Underworld Story

  1. Vienna

    July 3, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    Nice to read your review after I had watched this film recently. I like the fact that Duryea’s character is shaded right up to the end.
    I can’t recall the name of the actor who played Herbert Marshall’s son but he was very good.
    As you say, the choice of a Mary Anderson was odd.
    It’s a film I had never heard of until recently and it certainly deserves to be better known.
    Great part for Mr Duryea.

     
    • Colin

      July 3, 2014 at 7:40 pm

      Cheers. I’m on holiday right now and have been taking it easy as far as the internet is concerned but I just watched this again last night and felt like posting a few thoughts on it. It impressed me a lot and I just wanted to draw a bit of attention to it.
      The actor playing Marshall’s son was Gar Moore, and I agree he was very good. He seems to have had a limited screen career though – the only other film I’ve seen with him is Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff.

       
  2. realthog

    July 3, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    What a great essay about a nicely complex film noir! I’m a fan of Duryea’s too, and as you say it’s always pleasing to come across him playing a hero rather than a villain — or even both, as in Black Angel (1946).

     
    • Colin

      July 3, 2014 at 7:45 pm

      Thanks very much!
      I’ve always liked Duryea in pretty much anything – a wonderful screen actor. And yes, he had an excellent role in Black Angel, a film I featured here a long time back.

       
      • realthog

        July 3, 2014 at 9:08 pm

        And yes, he had an excellent role in Black Angel

        Which comes complete with Peter Lorre as a bonus! What’s not to like?

         
        • Colin

          July 3, 2014 at 9:31 pm

          And it comes from a Cornell Woolrich story too. There’s certainly a lot to like in that movie.

           
  3. Cavershamragu

    July 3, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I’ve never seen this one Colin but I know I have it somewhere – always fascinating to read of another dark and cynical movie that somehow made it our of Hollywood glamour machine – and really intrigued that this was based on a story by Craig Rice, better known for a more humorous approach to crime.

     
    • Colin

      July 3, 2014 at 9:04 pm

      Yes, the Craig Rice credit surprised me too, although there are touches of humor there – mainly the banter Duryea indulges in with Storm, O’Shea and others. There’s also some humor in the way da Silva plays his otherwise ruthless character.

      If you have trouble locating your copy, let me know.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        July 3, 2014 at 9:06 pm

        Thanks chum. In my increasingly addled brain I often get this one mixed up with the lynching movie he made afterwards, THE SOUND OF FURY – scary!

         
        • Colin

          July 3, 2014 at 9:30 pm

          Tell me about it! I have been taking the opportunity to unwind and let mind and body relax, and plan to continue for a good while longer.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            July 3, 2014 at 9:42 pm

            Are you about to head of on your hols? I recommend Sydney mate though it is incredibly cold at night! But it is wonderful to see the family wherever they are, right?

             
            • Colin

              July 3, 2014 at 9:50 pm

              I headed off, past tense. Currently, I’m kicking back in my parents’ place in Ireland. Not quite as sunny as Sydney I’ll admit but, as you say, it’s good to see the family again.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                July 4, 2014 at 6:19 am

                Have a great time chum.

                 
                • Colin

                  July 4, 2014 at 11:26 am

                  Thanks, will do. I saw your pics of Oz you posted – looks like you had a ball.

                   
                  • Cavershamragu

                    July 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm

                    All going swimmingly! Another 10 days on the other side of the rainbow :)

                     
                    • Colin

                      July 4, 2014 at 6:56 pm

                      It’s great to hear you’re enjoying yourself – hope the next ten days are just as good!

                       
  4. mikestakeonthemovies

    July 3, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    This is one with Dan I haven’t seen which i need to rectify. Thanks for bringing it up.

     
    • Colin

      July 4, 2014 at 12:42 am

      Until I bought the DVD I hadn’t seen it myself either, Mike. It features a typically good Duryea performance and I’d certainly recommend it.

       
  5. Thom Hickey

    July 4, 2014 at 4:25 am

    Thanks Colin. Will definitely track this down! Film noir throws so many lights and shadows on film and social history which makes it so fascinating. Regards Thom.

     
    • Colin

      July 4, 2014 at 11:24 am

      Well worth checking out, Thom. Noir is a varied style/genre and the social history aspect is quite compelling when done well.

       
  6. Garry Armstrong

    July 4, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    Nifty review of a film I haven’t seen in ages. I’m also a big Duryea fan. I agree about the oddity of the Mary Anderson casting. Wasn’t big enough to make Hollywood waves. Now, I know a little more about Cy “Zulu” Endfield. Thanks!!

     
    • Colin

      July 4, 2014 at 6:58 pm

      Thank you, Garry. I like Endfield’s work a lot myself. Zulu is probably his best known title but all his movies are very watchable.

       
  7. Jerry Entract

    July 5, 2014 at 11:53 am

    You know, Colin, considering you are on holiday and felt like posting ” a few thoughts”, this detailed and insightful review of a deceptively complex film is your usual great job basically.

    I cannot have seen this film in very many years but reading your review makes me want to seek it out immediately! Many thanks.

     
    • Colin

      July 5, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks, Jerry. I’m pleased you feel like seeing the movie now – job done I guess! I reckon it’s a really good noir but it doesn’t get talked about all that much.

       
  8. john k

    July 7, 2014 at 10:44 am

    I normally don’t chip in on films that I have never seen or not seen in 40 years or more but I thought I’d add a couple of comments on this one.
    The film is on my never ending heap of “must track down” titles and your review has made me feel this must be sooner rather than later.
    Duryea alone makes the film a must see for me, but also I’ve been enjoying Gale Storm in lots of stuff recently (THE KID FROM TEXAS,STAMPEDE,BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN, THE TEXAS RANGERS (1951) I also saw Storm in WHERE ARE YOUR CHILDREN? recently which must be one of the earliest examples of a J.D. Movie! She was impressive in that one as well.
    I too like Endfield, possibly best known for his creative partnership with Stanley Baker. The missing title from their several films together was JET STORM (1959) This was an early example of a man with a grudge with a bomb on a plane movie and it’s pretty impressive. Most of the budget was spent on the very large and most impressive cast; the “production values” are pretty thin. Nevertheless Endfield crafted an absorbing and highly watchable film. This is the sort of title we hope that Network will unearth someday. Anyone interested can drop them an e-mail they are most pro-active regarding this sort of thing.

     
    • Colin

      July 7, 2014 at 12:35 pm

      I’ve never seen Jet Storm, John but it sounds like an interesting title. Endfield and Baker worked very well together and anything with their names attached grabs my attention. It might indeed be worth mentioning the film to Network. Incidentally, I agree with you that they have been very active with regard to neglected British movies lately – they have a wonderfully eclectic mix of titles released and scheduled for release.

       
      • john k

        July 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm

        Network do take note of people’s requests and generally reply to e-mails as well. I recently requested five obscure Britflicks and they replied “nothing to report at this time” but noted that they are interested in receiving requests.
        Out of the five titles that I requested two are now on their release slate. (DANGEROUS VOYAGE, TIMESLIP) Another title THE COUNTERFEIT PLAN has just been released by Warner Archive. That title was a British B Movie actually picked up by a major American distributor. I hope that they will also release DIAL 999 (aka The way Out) with Mona Freeman and Gene Nelson because it’s a “goodie”
        The title that I am really hoping that they will release is MAN IN THE SHADOW (aka Violent Stranger) with Faith Domergue and Zachary Scott. This film is incredibly rare; no-one has a copy and reputedly it’s excellent. The three British B Movies Domergue made are all worth watching, the other two being
        TIMESLIP and SPIN A DARK WEB (out as a Sony MOD)
        Scott’s THE COUNTERFEIT PLAN is very entertaining as well and has already been given the Laura seal of approval.

         
        • Colin

          July 8, 2014 at 12:39 pm

          Yes, I noticed those two upcoming Network titles, John – I hope to pick them up in due course. What’s especially heartening about Network’s current output is the fact they’re combining strong transfers with very competitive pricing. Let’s hope it continues.

           
  9. john k

    July 7, 2014 at 11:06 am

    Off topic, and being more than a bit cheeky here but I did note over a Toby’s that you Colin, and Blake were more or less MIA on the recent marathon thread, a record breaker for Toby, 103 replies and counting. Blake in all fairness chipped in once.
    I realise that GUNSMOKE IN TUCSON and OREGON PASSAGE are probably only of marginal interest to you but the thread went off into all sorts of “side roads” and diversions. I would have thought the stuff on STRANGE LADY IN TOWN would have brought you into the mix; a Marmite Movie if ever there was one. I don’t know if you have seen that one Colin but I am sure it’s one that would interest you. I have sadly sabotaged Toby’s proposed post on that film but it’s certainly one that could feature on RTHC as it divides people so much.
    The point that I am trying to make is that Blake and yourself bring more of a cineaste’s point of view to these discussions rather than us “Film Buffs” Many Cineaste’s that I know or have known loathe the term “Film Buff” but I am happy with that particular handle, in fact I resemble that remark. At any rate Bake and your views are always welcome thin on the ground as they have been of late. I like the way you guys approach things from a different angle. Still I realise that you and Blake have a “life” unlike me a sad old geezer who spends most of his spare time drooling over old Arlene Dahl flicks.
    By the word “geezer” I am using the American version rather than the British one. I love the way Americans refer to the A.C.Lyles programmers as “Geezer Westerns” If there was such a thing (perish the thought) as a British Geezer Western it would probably star Ray Winstone, Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones and Danny Dyer!

     
    • Colin

      July 7, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      John, I have been a little out of the loop lately. Work was pretty intense until last month and then I just felt very tired and wanted to have a break from almost everything. Even my net browsing has been less than normal – I guess I just need to get the batteries recharged at the moment.

      You know, as far as I’m concerned, labels don’t matter much. We can employ different terms to refer to ourselves or others but, ultimately, we’re all people who love movies in one form or another. To me, it’s that love of this terrific and compelling art form which counts. Movie fan, film buff, cineaste, whatever – it generally boils down to the same thing.

       
    • Blake Lucas

      July 7, 2014 at 7:44 pm

      Yeah, I’ve been out of the loop too. Didn’t even know that thread at Toby’s had gone on as you say so I will take a look. I always like participating in any of these discussions but sometimes there are just all kinds of reasons why someone goes absent.

      BTW, John, I’m happy to be called a “Film Buff” too and have certainly done my time drooling over old Arlene Dahl flicks, too. I have my share of published film criticism and am glad to claim that but really need to be doing more than I have lately. Colin, Toby and Laura have all been doing more real writing lately than I have, and I always enjoy reading them and trying to contribute something along with their other readers. Really they all stimulate me to wanting to be working on my own projects so I’m trying to get more focused on that now.

      So maybe that’s why I passed up the chance to support you on Edward Ludwig though I wanted to do it because he has at least one great movie with “Wake of the Red Witch.”

      Anyway, just wanted to reply out of personal friendship and affection. And I’ll add that I think we all have a “life.” Who’s to say what a “life” should be? I for one wouldn’t dream of presuming to know the answer to that.

       
      • john k

        July 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

        Blake, firstly let me say that I have a very “warped” sense of humor, it’s just that I wanted to note that I missed both Colin and your contributions to Toby’s blog. I wanted to do it in a humorous way so you guys would not take offence and guessed that you both are very busy at the moment. I have a friend, who works in the industry BTW, who I would describe as a rabid “auteurist” My use of the term “film buff” draws the response “film connoisseur”…please!
        We cannot do anything about the pretentious views of people that we actually like. What annoys me about people who subscribe to the auteur theory (or at least the ones that I have known) is that if a director has a certain “cult” appeal (Tourneur, Karlson, Dwan…..) they are interested but they pass on lots of other very interesting film-makers. Edward Ludwig is a very interesting case in point. I was pleased when Lou Lumenick ( a film critic I admire very much BTW) called Ludwig “underrated” recently. I recently watched THE FABULOUS TEXAN one of Ludwig’s rare Westerns and it’s excellent, crammed with lots of ironic plot twists. The two Pine-Thomas films that I finally tracked down (JIVARO ans SANGAREE) are hugely enjoyable as well. Fernando Lamas is far from my favorite actor but he is perfectly cast in these two films.
        Finally, Blake I am sending copies of most of the Pine-Thomas titles that I have to Laura, so if there is anything that interests you I am sure she will be willing to send you a copy. She has already given favorable reviews to a couple of films from the “John Knight Archives” and if there is anything that you fancy it would be great to share them with you as well.

         
  10. Blake Lucas

    July 7, 2014 at 7:52 pm

    Guess while I’m here I’ll add that I enjoyed reading you on “The Underworld Story” Colin. I have seen this though has been a long time. I liked it though don’t remember it well now and would see it again. I have usually liked Endfield, probably among the earlier pre-blacklist ones I liked “The Sound of Fury” (aka “Try and Get Me”) even more then this and then the British ones I’ve seen like excellent “Hell Drivers”. “Zulu” has always been great for me–one of the most awesome movies of its kind ever, and though “Sands of the Kalahari” didn’t work as well for me, your earlier piece made me feel I should give it another chance sometime.

     
    • Colin

      July 7, 2014 at 7:59 pm

      Blake, I think you’d find much to enjoy in The Underworld Story if or when you have the opportunity to see it again. Duryea is very good – of course he almost always is – and the way the various elements of the story converge is neatly done.

       
  11. Jerry Entract

    July 9, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    I perceive that both John K and Blake are interested in Edward Ludwig, a point on which I certainly won’t disagree. After his film career slowed in the mid-50s he went quite heavily into TV. He directed 15 episodes of Rory Calhoun’s “The Texan” and 28 episodes of John Payne’s “The Restless Gun”. I am guessing Payne specifically wanted him after his able work on those Pine-Thomas films that Payne was in.

     
  12. Jerry Entract

    July 9, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Incidentally, Colin, hope your holiday back home was successful in “recharging your batteries” and that you feel refreshed. I think it’s quite nice that John K and I have been missing your and Blake’s perceptive comments of late. For me, it’s an indication of the nice friendships developing through our joint love of classic film.

     
    • Colin

      July 9, 2014 at 7:47 pm

      The recharging is still in progress, Jerry. I plan to take it easy for a bit and catch up on some reading and viewing.
      And I want to say I do appreciate it that my posts and or comments have been missed by yourself and others – I agree it does speak of a nice sense of camaraderie among film fans.

       
  13. kristina

    July 20, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    catching up on my blog reading… definitely interested in seeing this and surprised I haven’t by now, being such a Duryea fan. As you say he must be fascinating in this type of role. Best to you

     
    • Colin

      July 20, 2014 at 11:56 pm

      Way behind in my own blog reading too – but I’m catching up on my viewing and book reading in the meantime.

      This is certainly one to look out for – anything with Duryea is of course, but movies where he played the lead are especially enjoyable.

       
  14. Clayton @ Phantom Empires

    July 21, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    What an unusually harsh and excellent cast! I think having De Silva and Duryea together is a frightening idea, hehehe…I love the idea. I’m about to go through a gritty, pug-faced mobster-type phase again, and I’ll be looking for this!

    Congrats on the recharge; ship-shape in Bristol fashion, wot?

     
    • Colin

      July 21, 2014 at 11:50 pm

      Yeah, give it a whirl if you’re in the mood for some mobster action. Howard da Silva was great playing loud toughs and he’s very entertaining in this movie.

       

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 507 other followers

%d bloggers like this: