In Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, the implications of the titular gangland reveal not only the hidden landscape of crime existing beneath lawful society, but a deeper journey into the world of dreams. As presented in Joseph Campbell’s narrative outline “Hero’s Journey,” the impetus towards action and the character’s inevitable journey can similarly be understood as a dive into the subconscious. If you can break down the story points into a circle, and cut it horizontally, above the line is the waking mind, below it, the dreaming. Most obvious in narratives like Alice in Wonderland or Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, most stories are structured to favor the interiority of dreams over the course the protagonist’s journey towards change.
Few filmmakers highlight this as poetically as Sternberg, who crafts a cinematic landscape by way of smoke and light. The emotions are raw and rooted in a universe crowded with people searching to buy into the same dream. Bars and parties center powerfully in his work, and he paints them with baroque sensibilities, working towards a central fantasy. The figure holding this collective longing is often a woman, who crafts a persona that crosses gendered desires. And in Underworld, Feathers (Evelyn Brent) takes up that role. However, unlike Marlene Dietrich in Morocco or Shanghai Express, Feathers doesn’t seem to be the arbitrator of her own image. Confronted with how she became Feathers, it becomes quickly apparent that this persona was crafted for or by “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft), her sluggish but charismatic gangster boyfriend. Feathers still sparkles when she stands before a crowd, but it seems like a shadow representation of the real self.
Rather than structure this gangster film as a rise to the top, Sternberg presents it as a love triangle. Feathers becomes the object of affection of two very different men: her long-time boyfriend, the brutish Bull, and his protege, an alcoholic former lawyer named Rolls Royce (Clive Brook). Underworld structures these competing romances with an incredible amount of maturity, making it quickly apparent that Feathers and Rolls Royce are the best match for each other. They not only “speak the same language” but seem apt to save each other from a life of crime. When Bull gets caught by the feds and put on death row, they see a chance to escape together, but don’t. This love affair does not become a story of obsession or teenage antics, but adult and real. Both recognize their debt to Bull and are willing to give up their own happiness for their loyalty towards him. With such sweeping poetic graces, Sternberg expresses the appeal of the gangster film, the idea of loyalty and family, holding utmost importance in a corrupt and lonely world.
The film makes it easy to understand how two intelligent people can be so swayed by a gangster like Bull, who may not be bright but wears his heart and loyalties on his sleeve. As Bull, Bancroft has range, his performance in Underworld so fundamentally different than The Docks of New York. He doesn’t have a particularly handsome face (it hints at being swollen from drinking, and his wrinkles cut so deep they scar his cheeks), but his virility burns through the screen. He has that undefinable twinkle in the eye, a smile that reveals rather than conceals motives and that “it” factor. A large man who has long been accustomed to the power of his size and lank, Bancroft seems larger than any man ever seen on screen when standing tall. He barely fits within the frame, and without pushing around his weight, men cower before his figure and women fall into him.
Comparatively, Brook as Rolls Royce almost seems diminutive, with his slick-backed hair and laid back style. When he first appears, the character seems like a shell of a human being and a couple decades older, torn apart by drink. Bull saves Rolls Royce, gives him a home and a reason to stop drinking. Brook crafts a character who lives apathetically because living passionately leads him to booze. His first interaction with Feathers, in a small apartment where he insists that “he’s not interested in women,” stands among the sexiest of Sternberg’s career. As both characters feel each other out, both hold themselves back. Feathers moves around, working towards capturing Rolls’ attention. He sits and stands still, his wandering eyes revealing his lust.
Few filmmakers in the history of cinema have invoked the inherent eroticism of the image like Sternberg. Every shot and every composition plays off the light and smoke on screen, creating a hazy dream. His films invoke a soft romanticism and the image itself becomes an inviting body that welcomes the audience inside. The atmosphere lends itself to questions of morality and value, as desire becomes the motivating force behind change within his films. Rather than being an effect of stalling a person in a sort of animal state, sex and desire move them to be better, to change their situation. This idea lies at the heart of why Sternberg truly thrived during the precode and struggled after it was enforced. Sex was not a negative force in his universe, but one of incredible redemptive power.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.