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Josef von Sternberg: Eros and Abstraction

Thursday, January 15, 2009
7:30 p.m. Underworld
Josef von Sternberg (U.S., 1927)

New Print
Judith Rosenberg on Piano


The atmospheric and explosive Underworld is both a forerunner of the hard-boiled gangster cycle of the thirties and a thoroughly Sternbergian stylistic performance, what he called “an experiment in photographic violence.” The scenario sets up a triangle involving robber Bull Weed (George Bancroft); his girl Feathers (proto-Dietrich Evelyn Brent), who “wears feathers all over”; and Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), a brooding, bookish drunk who assesses Bull as “Attila at the gates of Rome.” Together they play out a fable of rivalry and redemption. Underworld is based on a treatment by Ben Hecht, whose reporter days in Chicago gave him firsthand knowledge of the gangland setting; although he disapproved of Sternberg’s far from journalistic approach to the material, Hecht accepted an Oscar for the script. The film’s amalgamation of snappy urbanisms and stylized shadows was such a surprise success that the theater where it premiered was forced to stay open all night.

—Juliet Clark

• Written by Charles Furthman, Robert N. Lee, based on a treatment by Ben Hecht. Photographed by Bert Glennon. With George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Clive Brook, Fred Kohler. (97 mins @ 20 fps, Silent, B&W, 35mm, From Paramount)