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.