25 October 2006 | Quinoa1984
one of those finite definitions of a gritty B-noir, done just right
Writer/director Samuel Fuller is not personally attached to the material he presents in Underworld USA in the sense of it being autobiographical. But it is pretty likely, from listening to interviews with him and just from seeing his other work in the noir-esquire realm of motion pictures, that he knew at least the world these characters are in. Or at least he knows what kinds of emotions and what lies underneath certain aspects of lesser pulp fiction- and has a kind of journalistic sensibility that is all his own, telling it like it is from the mean streets of who-knows. It's got an assured eye working the gears, and it by-passes some usual clichés to get at some more interesting bits within some of the conventions. This is in the bones just a tale of revenge, but Fuller wants the little things and moments that make up such a tale, and how the characters can be more realized than might usually be. I liked, for example, early on when Tolly Devlin is 14 and makes a comment to his mother about something in the middle of their conversation- the mother doesn't say anything, but there's a quick, tight close-up of her face to catch the moment. It actually stuck with me longer than I expected, even as the main parts of the scene went along.
Another part that really, really impressed me was when Devlin (Cliff Robertson, not bad at all in a part that gets to stretch his skills somewhat), nearing the end of his prison term, and finally finds one of the men who beat his father to death when he saw when he was 14. The scene is very tense, but somehow very human too, as Tolly has to contend with a dying man that he has to kill with his own hands. Soon, Fuller gets the gears of the story going further, as he vows revenge against the others who committed the crime, making him pull an undercover act to infiltrate the mob to get close to them, particularly Earl Conners (Rober Emhardt, a plum role for him considering all of his TV parts). But he also falls for a woman, Cuddles, played by Dolores Day, and like Fuller's Crimson Kimono, the weight of the main thrust of what Tolly needs is balanced against what he could also have with his possible romantic interest, caught up in the emotional bog he's in.
I liked a lot how Robertson tapped well enough into the character to make him plausible, even sympathetic. He understands what Fuller is going for, a slightly more realistic- or more powerful kind of representation in the midst of the hard-boiled dialog and more complicated scenes- as he's playing a character who actually has a past, a childhood shown as shattered and made as the complete context that he has to contend with as an adult, despite women around him telling him otherwise. I still remember plenty of shots in the film too (not the gun-shots, the camera-work I mean), and this is after having seen the film months ago, and the driving musical score from Harry Sukman (a solid Fuller collaborator). That Fuller extracts a good deal of compelling entertainment out of a premise that seems pretty standard and even slight is remarkable, and ranks among the other fine superlative B-movies he was doing at the time.