Samuel Fuller is today regarded as a revered name among directors. Unlike his peers- John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Howard Hawks, to name but a few- Fuller didn't get much respect when he needed it, at least from critics and studio heads who regarded his talents as workmanlike. Consequently, this talented director, screenwriter and occasional novelist and actor, toiled under meager budgets and scant support from studio executives. Fuller was typical of directors of his generation who had come of age during the Great Depression and World War II. He had a tough guy persona and had learned to survive on the mean streets of Manhattan where he worked as a crime reporter in the 1930s. Fuller could have landed a cushy job in the military during the war but eschewed the opportunity in favor of volunteering for combat duty in the European campaign. His scripts were tightly-written, no-nonsense affairs and his direction was direct and to-the-point. Fuller cut a larger-than-life figure with an out-sized personality and his penchant for indulging in cigars that were so large they looked as though they were inspired by cartoons. Despite the budgetary limitations on his films and the fact that he never enjoyed a career-defining breakaway hit, Fuller's movies have stood the test of time and before he died in 1997, he had witnessed his work being favorably reassessed by a new generation of directors and critics.
"Underworld U.S.A." is one of Fuller's true gems. A 1961 film noir crime story, the movie gave an early career boost to Cliff Robertson but its significance goes much deeper. Although viewed as a typical low budget crime thriller back in the day, the movie is a a true classic of the genre. The film opens with 14 year-old Tolly Davlin (David Kent), a street-wise product of a crime-infested unnamed big city, witnessing the beating death of the father he idolized by a pack of enforcers from a mob syndicate that he had crossed. Tolly's dad, himself a low-life who was teaching his son how to survive in the urban jungle by being more cunning and ruthless than the competition. Tolly, now orphaned, finds the only friend he has is Sandy (Beatrice Kay), a tough-as-nails saloon owner who takes a maternal interest in Tolly, though he rarely heeds her advice. Tolly is consumed with avenging his father's death. He arranges intentionally builds up a criminal record leading to him being incarcerated in a juvenile detention center- but all the while he is painstakingly following leads about who his father's murderers were and who employed them. The story jumps ahead and we find Tolly now a young man in his late twenties (played by Robertson) having been incarcerated in a prison that houses one of the killers, a man who is literally on his death bed in the hospital ward. That doesn't stop Tolly from smothering him with a pillow and making it look like natural causes. When Tolly is released from jail, he reunites with Sandy and has a chance encounter with a sexy gun moll who is nicknamed Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) who has been marked for death for having failed to carry out a mission for the mob. Tolly saves her life and secretes her in Sandy's apartment while he begins his pursuit of two other men who killed his father that fateful night. Having succeeded in getting his street justice, he goes for bigger game: the syndicate bosses.
Fuller's film is somewhat unique in that he avoids the cliche of showing the mob echelon as seedy, Al Capone types. Instead, they are elite, sophisticated and corrupt businessmen and elected officials who run a major complex called The National Projects which ostensibly benefits the poor because periodically the Olympic-sized swimming pool welcomes neighborhood children. In reality, the top bosses live in splendor in penthouse apartments there and ruthlessly oversee their crime organization. In a clever plot device, Tolly works with the local crime-busting city official (Larry Gates) and volunteers to go undercover and work with the mob in order to bring them to justice. He then tells the mob he's a double agent, so to speak, and really working for them. Ultimately, he devises an inspired scheme by which he places circumstantial evidence to convince the crime lords that their partners are out to betray and kill them, thereby leading them to "off" each other and ensuring that Tolly's hands are clean. It's a plot device that was used in "The Godfather Part II" when the mob boss Frankie Pantangeli becomes mistakenly convinced that Michael Corleone tried to have him assassinated and tries to do the same to him. Similarly, in the 1989 James Bond film "Licence to Kill", 007 infiltrates a major drug gang and convinces the big boss that his key people are betraying him, thus leading to their murders.
"Underworld U.S.A." has terrific performances across-the-board with
Cliff Robertson providing some of the best work of his career.
Strangely, Robertson would rarely, if ever again, play a street-wise
character with a Brooklyn accent despite the fact that's he's brilliant
in this film. He is as ruthless as the people he is hunting and his
quest doesn't allow him to show mercy to anyone. Playing off Cuddles'
desperation for love, he uses her sexually (in some fairly steamy scenes
for the era) but intends to cruelly dump her after she has served her
purpose in his revenge plot. Dolores Dorn is excellent as hard luck young woman who has
been used and abused by men her entire life. Larry Gates is excellent as
the crime commissioner and Beatrice Kay is outstanding as the
middle-aged, lonely woman who tries to compensate for her lack of a
significant other or a child by collecting a vast array of dolls. She's a
tragic figure, well drawn by screenwriter Fuller. The mob bosses are
also a fascinating bunch of slimy creeps who toss a few crumbs to the
masses even as they exploit them financially through shakedowns and
other forms of graft (Robert Emhardt is particularly effective as the
most ruthless of the bosses and Richard Rust is chilling as a
good-looking mob enforcer who carries out the shocking murder of a child
to send a warning to her father not to cooperate with the cops.) The
climax of the film is an action scene set on a virtually deserted city
street. The lack of people reminded me of one of those "Twilight Zone"
episodes in which the protagonist finds himself alone in an urban
landscape. Whether the lack of people was due to budget considerations
or an artistic decision on the part of Fuller, the result gives the
finale a genuinely eerie feel, thanks in no small part to the brilliant
cinematography of Hal Mohr. Fuller doesn't provide a formula happy
ending, instead carrying through his cynical view of corruption in big
cities and how it brings tragedy to all who are involved.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray release has an excellent transfer that
allows the viewer to fully appreciate the noir aspects of the
production. Bonus features include a featurette in which Martin Scorsese
extols Samuel Fuller's achievements; an excellent documentary , "Sam
Fuller: Storyteller" in which contemporary filmmakers and Fuller's
relatives discuss his compelling personal life and films; an isolated
track for composer Henry Sukman's moody score, the original trailer and
an illustrated collector's booklet with the usual excellent insights
from film historian Julie Kirgo. This edition is limited to only 3,000
units. Don't miss out on this one.