I first caught Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) at the Pacific Film Archive von Sternberg retrospective earlier this year accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano. I welcomed the opportunity to watch the film again projected on the Castro's giant screen with live piano accompaniment by the indefatigable Stephen Horne for the specific intent of savoring the scene where "Feathers" McCoy (Evelyn Brent) first comes to the attention of "Rolls Royce" Wensel (Clive Brook); namely, by way of an ostrich feather shaken loose from McCoy's outfit, drifting down to Wensel who is sweeping the floor below. Entrances are rarely so insinuating.
Eddie Muller, the "Czar of Noir", had the honors of introducing Underworld to its SFSFF audience. Often asked—in his capacity as the Czar—what he considers to be the first film noir, Muller admitted he rarely answers the question because he considers trying to pin down the first film noir as somewhat an absurd endeavor. Notwithstanding, an ever-expanding roster of scholars continue to sift through pre-1940 films in search of some sort of cinematic missing link to establish a proto-noir precedent. "Here's the deal," Muller punched, "to me, film noir applies to an organic, artistic movement within the business of popular entertainment and it has been more than sufficiently proven that its Hollywood incarnation began in the early 1940s, primarily with two films: the A-list The Maltese Falcon (1941) and a far-less influential—but not insignificant—64-minute B-film called Stranger On the Third Floor made by RKO in 1940." The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett's famous '30s novel popularized the figure of the wisecracking anti-hero up to his ears in an amoral world of greed and avarice. Stranger On the Third Floor introduced to small-scale Hollywood-made crime stories an extravagant expressionism in art direction and cinematography. Both these films, however, are mere touchstones, the progenitors if you will, the exemplars of noir's content and style. The definitive film noir Double Indemnity would not be released until three years later in 1944.
"Having said that," Muller qualified, "I have found—as a person interested in film preservation and film history—that it is great fun and it is invaluable to spur interest in older films by searching for film noir's antecedents. That's why I am here today and happy to introduce 1927's Underworld as a co-presentation of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Film Noir Foundation. Not that I actually believe that Underworld is truly a film noir. It is a gangster picture and it is one of the first of its kind. Some people would argue that 1912's The Muskateers Of Pig Alley by D.W. Griffith or a film in 1915 called Regeneration directed by Raoul Walsh might be the first true depiction of gansters on the movie screen. Be that as it may, I think Underworld is the first example of what society would come to identify as the gangster picture." Structurally, dynamically, and visually, Underworld possesses the elements that have led to the creation of the recently-released Public Enemies. The game hasn't really changed all that much. Honestly speaking, Muller considers such silent films as Sunrise or A Cottage on Dartmour to be "much more noir."
Offering backstory on Underworld in order to provide insight into the moviemaking process and some of the practical and pertinent clues to the roots of film noir, Muller observed that most film historians—especially those enamored with the auteur theory—consider Underworld to be a Josef von Sternberg film. It was the director's third assignment but the first produced with the full support of a major studio, namely Paramount. Underworld was also the first film to display many of the visual flourishes that became Josef von Sternberg's signature. Of even greater historical significance to Muller, however, was that Underworld was the first story credit for Ben Hecht, who would go on to become one of the most prolific and respected screenwriters of Hollywood history, if not the most prolific and respected screenwriter of Hollywood history.
Hecht came to Hollywood in 1925 at the behest of his colleague Herman Mankiewicz (screenwriter for Citizen Kane) who, like Hecht, was a newspaper reporter with literary ambitions. "Mankie"—as he was known—extended an invitation to Ben Hecht in a telegram, which famously included: "Millions are to be made out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let it get around." Once ensconced in an office at Paramount earning $300 a week, Hecht got a crash course in picture writing from his sarcastic pal. "I wanted to point out to you," Mankiewicz advised, "that in a novel a hero can lay 10 girls and marry the virgin for the finish. In a movie, this is not allowed. The hero, as well as the heroine, have to be virgins. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants cheating and stealing, getting rich, and whipping the servants; but, you have to shoot him in the end and—when he falls with a bullet in his forehead—it is advisable that he clutch the Gobelins tapestry on the library wall and bring it down over his head as sort of a symbolic shroud. Also, covered by such a tapestry, the actor does not have to hold his breath while he is being photographed as the dead man." Ben Hecht had an immediate reaction to this advice. To quote: "The thing to do was to skip the heroes and heroines and to write a movie that contained only villains and broads. That way I do not have to tell any lies."
In his 1954 autobiography, A Child of the Century, Hecht explained that, "As a newspaper man I have learned that nice people—the audience—loved criminals, and doted on reading about their love problems as well as their sadism. My movie, grounded on this simple truth, was produced under the title Underworld. It was the first gangster movie to bedazzle the movie fans and there were no lies in it, except for a half dozen sentimental flourishes introduced by its director Joe von Sternberg." Hecht thought so little of von Sternberg's additions that—upon seeing the film—he sent the director a very blunt note via telegram: "You poor ham. Take my name off the picture." Paramount kept Hecht's name on the film and Underworld ended up being nominated for and winning the very first Oscar® ever presented for Best Original Story. Hecht would win again in that category in 1935 for a film called The Scoundrel.
Several years later, Howard Hughes wanted Ben Hecht to write a movie based on the exploits of Al Capone. Hecht was a newspaper man in Chicago and knew the Capone territory very well. Hecht agreed to this with specific conditions. He had to be paid $1,000 per day in cash with the money delivered precisely at 6:00. "In that way," Hecht said, "I stood to lose only a single day's labor if Mr. Hughes turned out to be insolvent." He was not only a good writer, he was a smart businessman. The finished script of Scarface incorporated many elements that Hecht used in Underworld and also brought a pair of midnight visitors to his Hollywood hotel. Muller donned Hecht's persona to tell the tale.
"They entered the room as ominously as any paid movie gangsters; their faces set in scowls and guns bulging under their coats. They had a copy of my Scarface script in their hands. Their dialogue belonged in it.
" 'You da guy who wrote dis?' I said that I was.
" 'We read it.' I enquired as to how they liked it?
" 'We want to ask you some questions.' I invited them to go right ahead.
" 'Is dis stuff in here about Al Capone?'
" 'God, no! I don't even know Al!' They traded some back-and-forth banter about guys Hecht did know in Chicago and then they prepared to leave, satisfied that the script was about 'dem other Chicago gangsters.' But then they stopped in the doorway.
" 'If dis stuff ain't about Al Capone, then why are you calling it Scarface? Somebody will think it's him.'
" 'That's the reason,' I said. 'Al is one of the most famous and fascinating men of our time. If we call the movie Scarface, everyone is going to want to see it, figuring that it's about Al. That's the business that we call showmanship!'
"My visitors pondered this and one of them finally said, 'I'll tell Al.' He started out the door and stopped. 'So who's dis guy Howard Hughes?'
" 'Ah, he's got nothing to do with anything,' I said—finally speaking the truth—'He's just the sucker with the money.'
" 'Okay, den to hell with him.' "
Ben Hecht's fingerprints are all over some of Hollywood's greatest movies—Gone With The Wind, Notorious, Spellbound, Kiss of Death—way too many films to mention. He was also not only a great original screenwriter, but one of the great script doctors in Hollywood. He created in Underworld and Scarface two of the earliest prototypes of what would become film noir. So, despite the antagonism that existed between the writer and director of Underworld, they do represent—as well as any two artists Muller could mention—the two essential facets of what would become film noir: on the one hand, a tough-minded and morally ambiguous view of a world rife with corruption, deceit and betrayal (that would be Ben Hecht's contribution) combined with the spellbinding and seductive visual style that brings a dreadful but romantic sensuality to people moving through light and shadow, which fairly describes all the best films that Josef von Sternberg ever made.
Whether or not Underworld is considered a film noir ultimately doesn't matter, Muller concluded, it remains an absolutely fantastic, influential and significant film.
Cross-published on Twitch.