Underworld USA was made just after Samuel Fuller came out of his main period of Hollywood prominence and success. He’d left Fox (and a productive, supportive relationship with Darryl F Zanuck) and set up his own production company, releasing The Crimson Kimono, Verboten! and Run of the Arrow. Underworld USA marked a return (even more so than The Crimson Kimono) to the world of Pickup on South Street, a return to a landscape of urban desolation, dissolution and malice populated by self-interested parties who either wielded their great amounts of power as a weapon or snatched desperately (and often vainly) at the promise of a slither of it. Make no mistake, this is pure Fullerian poetry and moral investigation, but the film also sits snugly alongside Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil and Body and Soul as a portrait of crime as big, legitimatised Capitalist business, a nefarious machine that drapes itself in shades suggesting cleanliness and common-sensical, common-good virtue while generating profit at the expense of thousands of pieces of created human wreckage.
And thus Fuller, like Polonsky before him, had bought about a great rupturing from the universe and the themes of the classical Noir film. Namely, the guiding hand of objective fate has been abandoned; any doom that these characters meet is a result of their own pathologies, and these pathologies are a direct result of their experience(s) and role(s) in a corrupt, broken system (and the manipulations and exploitations of the few who dictate and maintain the course of the system, such as the mob-bosses-cum-legitimate-businessmen in this film). There is no outside omnipresent and absolutely powerful force to be found in the narrative, only the drama of a society playing itself out. We are a long way here from the most perfect espousal of the theme of the classical Noir, as featured in Edgar G Ulmer’s Detour (which is, albeit, a film which predicts certain elements of the likes of Underworld USA in the pathologies of its characters)- “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” The system we see in Underworld USA would have been (and still will be) familiar to many in the audience (especially those who have shared the urban existence of the characters), and Fuller has presented us with one of the cinema’s fullest visions of its destructive vicious cycle.
As such Underworld USA is called a neo-noir film for chronological reasons, but it also appears as an early example of the sort of neo-Noir that has stood in opposition to simple, depoliticised efforts to rehash or simulate the aesthetics or gestures of the classical Noir film- say Roman Polanski’s Chinatown against Dick Richard’s Farewell, My Lovely. Unlike many of those more recent works, however, Underworld USA offers a glimpse of redemption, the promise of improvement. As Cliff Robertson’s Tolly completes his death-run after being shot while assassinating the Big Criminal Cheese he collapses against and under a bin and a poster which bear the legends “Keep Your City Clean” and “Give Blood Now”, and his death inspires his moll Cuddles to complete the job and act as a federal witness against the surviving mob bosses. One can’t seek justice against a cold, impersonal, hostile universe, but justice can perhaps be bought to bear on the rulers and profiteers of this film’s human environment. With final-close up on the clenched fist of the dead Tolly the message is clear: even amongst this narrative of the vicious cycle in action a key punch has been thrown against the established criminal and amoral order.
And, indeed, Fuller was the perfect director to give us the sharp, hard hit of reality. His style here is at its most brutal, its most efficient, its more violent; close-ups are interjected at every opportunity in the flow of the action to invite analysis of the character’s pathologies and to scan their faces for the tell-tale flickers of a moral conscience, the camera stalks and closes in on its prey with startling rapidity, tracking their movements and actions and then pinning into corners, against the grey expanse of the sky, amongst the alternately opulent and suspiciously spick-and-span environs of the city, and the grubby back-alleys inhabited by the lower rungs. Moments of tenderness and closeness are abstracted and distant-seeming (for all of the character’s physical proximity), making the treachery and dishonesty of Tolly’s treatment of his ‘moll’ Cuddles for much of the film visually and psychologically clear. Gus slips on a pair of dark sunglasses every time he undertakes a hit as if to put up a barrier between himself and his actions, and Cuddles, her guard lowered by alcohol, sucks pornographically on a block of ice as if returning to and unable to escape from the objectified, sexual role she has been forced into. Every shot, every cut, every camera movement slices at us and our psyche like the young hoodlum who takes a shot at and leaves a scar on Tolly’s face; we are implicated every time one of those characters takes a look at us in close-up, and we jarred out of our complacent moral comfort-zone every time Fuller reminds us of the violence lying at the heart of the language of image-creation and film-making (after all, why else would we call a cut a cut?).
Cliff Robertson is superb as Tolly, for most of the film the sneering, smirking face of calculated and ruthless vengeance, a natural charisma mixing with a pretty terrifying coldness. Dolores Dorn as Cuddles is a moving study in fragile, bruised resolve, Richard Rust as Gus is a bag of nerves held together by cigarettes and a negating fixation on appearing the picture of cool and Robert Ermhardt as Earl Connors is every imagining of the stereotypical vile, corpulent and nihilistic arch-exploiter made flesh.
So this is a marvel, a masterpiece, our reality chopped up and force-fed back to us, not so much the revelation of the dark, evil mirror image of the American Project as the simple confirmation of the true nature, meaning and matter of its everyday continuance. It’s wildly entertaining, of course, because it’s Fuller. But it has the side-effect of making most modern thrillers and action movies look like child’s play, a fleeing from the void when a confrontation is what’s really needed. Almost every Fuller film reminds us of the urgent need to acknowledge and understand in every facet and implication the simple, tormenting fact that our world is built upon violence and the exploitation and destruction of fellow human beings.