Tuesday, February 28, 2012

66. UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (1961)

At the age of fourteen, Tolly Devlin (David Kent) spends New Year's Eve on the streets of New York, rolling drunks for wallets and wristwatches, until he's sobered up by witnessing a murder starkly silhouetted against the brick wall of an alley. The victim turns out to be his father and the evening's choruses of "Auld Lang Syne" brand his brain with old acquaintences he can never forget -- the small time crooks who croaked his old man, beginning with Vic Ferrar (Peter Brocco), the one assailant whose face he actually saw. The orphaned Tolly escapes from a children's home to embark on a willful life of crime calculated to lead him back into the presence of the imprisoned Ferrar. The adult Tolly (Cliff Robertson) finally finds his quarry on his deathbed, where Ferrar begs for forgiveness and, to receive it, rats the names of the other three killers before Tolly bids him farewell with the single word "Fink!"

The rest of the film follows Tolly, freed from prison in a self-made horseblanket suit, deeper into the underworld as he seeks his father's killers, who have ascended to the city's highest ranks of crime, controlling the areas of drugs and prostitution. As often happens in the films of Samuel Fuller, a glamorous gal gets in the way, met as part of the scheme and whose offer of love gums up Tolly's plans -- in this case, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), a compromised moll whom he saves from a potentially mortal beating from hitman Gus (Richard Rust). The dizzy dame loves Tolly, wants to have his kids.

Produced, directed and scripted by Fuller from a series of SATURDAY EVENING POST articles by Joseph Dineen, UNDERWORLD U.S.A. is slick, stylish and hard-hitting -- cameraman Hal Mohr (Joseph Losey's THE LONG NIGHT) turns the opening sequence into a tour de force of camera mobility and stark lighting as it follows the young Tolly through a labyrinth of back streets toward the most decisive moment in his life. This in turn is complemented by an equally mobile final sequence that follows Tolly -- stumbling down the streets, shot and bleeding profusely after single-handedly dethroning every mob boss in town -- back to what might well be the very same alley, ironically knocking over a trashcan marked "Keep Our City Clean" before collapsing in a heap under a poster asking us all to "Give Blood Now." Mohr's long tracking shots look like the classic noir scene that might have inspired the finale of Godard's BREATHLESS, but in this case it's BREATHLESS that came first.

If anything prevents UNDERWORLD U.S.A. from being top-flight Fuller, it's casting that feels in most cases a few steps to the right of perfection. The three killers are soft, not particularly memorable, which makes their ultimate defeat not especially cathartic -- which, granted, may be part of the point, but is not dramatically satisfying. Robertson is fine, but Tolly himself is a louse (witness his response to Cuddles' declaration that she wants to bear his children) and not given enough background to give his dedication to revenge sufficient motivation. Robert Emhardt is suitably sleazy as the pudgy, pool-ensconced Public Enemy #1 Earl Connors, and Rust -- who runs down a little girl on a bicycle -- makes a convincingly heartless trigger man (his penchant for putting on shades before performing his hits recalls Clu Gulager's star turn in Don Siegel's THE KILLERS). However, after her almost breathtaking first appearance as an angel face glimpsed in a world of moral squalor, Dorn's Cuddles doesn't quite live up to her promise as a female lead. More interesting is Beatrice Kay's world-weary Sandy, a kind of surrogate mother to Tolly who collects dolls because she's unable to have children of her own. The film was made independently on the backlot at Universal, resulting in the irony that "UNDERWORLD U.S.A." is sometimes composed of the same suburban streets we remember from such wholesome fare as LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and BACK TO THE FUTURE.

Viewed on  Sony Pictures DVD, as part of THE SAMUEL FULLER FILM COLLECTION.

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