"Underworld" (1927) by Josef von Sternberg Silent Cinema Detective Film

"Underworld" (1927) by Josef von Sternberg

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Santos Zunzunegui

Underworld (1927, USA) by Josef von Sternberg (81’)
Presentation: Santos Zunzunegui

Recognised as the first great gangster movie, it tells the story of the main character’s escape from jail and his reunion with his lover and his accomplice, whom he thought had betrayed him. He will finally have to face the police, who besiege him in his bulletproof hideout, where he is depicted as a tragic antihero with a certain romantic aura.

On Saturday, the video of the presentation recorded the day before will be shown.


  1. Santos ZunzuneguiSantos Zunzunegui

    Escritor e historiador del cine español. Es catedrático de Comunicación Audiovisual en la Universidad del País Vasco. Paralelamente a su labor docente y ensayística, colabora a comienzos de la década de los 80 en la revista de cine Contracampo, y más recientemente en el suplemento cultural de ABC y el suplemento "Cultura/s" de La Vanguardia y con su columna "Lo viejo y lo nuevo" en Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. Es autor de ensayos como Mirar la imagen; El cine en el País Vasco; Pensar la imagen; Paisajes de la forma; La mirada cercana; Metamorfosis de la mirada: el Museo como espacio del sentido; Historias de España: de qué hablamos cuando hablamos de cine español; Metamorfosis de la mirada: museo y semiótica, y La mirada plural, por el que recibió el I Premio Francisco Ayala en 2008, así como las monografías de Robert Bresson y Orson Welles, entre otras. Además ha editado, con Jenaro Talens, Contracampo. Ensayos sobre teoría e historia del cine, y los cuatro primeros volúmenes de Historia general del cine, y, con Manuel Palacio, el doceavo volumen de la misma Historia general del cine.

    Ha escrito varios guiones cinematográficos de películas como Contactos (1970) de Paulino Viota o la trilogía de Bilbao: Bilbao en la memoria (1987), Bilbao mientras tanto (1987) y Bilbao como un mosaico (1987) de Juan Ortuoste y Javier Rebollo. Entre sus últimas publicaciones se encuentran Analizar la narración: introducción a las formas narrativas y la recopilación de artículos Lo viejo y lo nuevo. Su último libro es Bajo el signo de la melancolía: cine, desencanto y aflicción (2017).

As it is the case of many films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Underworld ("La ley del hampa", 1927), made it to the hands of its author Josef von Sternberg (Vienna 1894 - Hollywood 1969) after Paramount had assigned it previously to two other directors. This is not surprising in a media in which, as André Bazin put it with his usual appropriateness, the genius belonged strictly to the system and not to particular individuals who could be exchanged within a strictly divided labour organization. The fact that this was a lucky appointment was proved by the immediate success of the film, and showed Ben Hecht he was wrong for his lack of confidence on the talent of the Viennese-born filmmaker, former pupil of Charles Chaplin. Ben Hecht apparently did not recognize his original story in the sophisticated images of the film, even though his participation gained him the Academy Award for best script in the first Oscars ceremony celebrated in 1929.

After the immediate success with the public, and quickly reinforced by the critics, Underworld came to be considered the film that inaugurated a new genre (the gangster movies), one of the only three autochthonous genres (needless to say that the other two are western and musical) that american cinema has cultivated in words of the filmmaker and cinephile Martin Scorsese. It is also Scorsese who will point out that this movie genre will allow filmmakers to get into the relationship of fascination that the American society holds permanently with violence and the crime world.

And although it is true that there are some notable, though primitive, precedents in films directed by relevant filmmakers like D.W. Griffith –The Musketeers of Pig Alley, 1912– or Raoul Walsh –Regeneration, 1915– that already presented certain aspects of the underworld referred in the title of Sternberg's film, we have to agree with most critics when they say that this film is the one that finally sets the basis for an immediate dissemination of a new type of movie that would develop without limit in parallel to the arrival of sound to the screens. A good part of the imagery that would visually feed the new genre are present in the movie made by Sternberg. The same is true for the character typology: the brutal gangster with a good heart, generous and sentimental (George Bancroft), the melancholic and drunk intellectual who has gotten involved in the dark side of society in order to keep his principles (the extraordinary creation of the elegant Clive Brook), the young lady between two friends who suffers a rape attempt by another gangster, which will cause the tragedy (an Evelyn Brent who prefigures the character that later in the 30's decade, Marlene Dietrich would develop to paroxysm in half a dozen of other memorable films by Sternberg).

Because we have to note that the movie Underworld is a production made in the aesthetic peak of silent cinema, in a moment when cinematographic art seemed like it had reached a point of exceptional maturity. And it is in this field were the talent of Sternberg shines exceptionally, to the point we could argue that in Underworld two different films coexist. One of them develops action in the background provided by the world of gangs, illegal businesses and conflicts. The other can be seen as an abstract adventure of lights and shadows that allows Sternberg to begin showing his refined taste in the complex and subtile illumination, as well as in the baroque scenarios and excessive ambiance (just think in the scene of the annual gangster ball which prefigures the crazy carnival of Cadiz in the delirious work of art that is the 1935 production The Devil Is a Woman). All of this together with a taste for surprising camera angles, and editing that suggests more than shows, which transforms the cinematographic camera into an "incisive tool of vivisection" (in the words of Sternberg).

It is not surprinsing then, that with the early finalization of Stenberg's professional career, he claims in his memories (published in 1965 with the title Fun in a Chinese Laundry) that if he had to "teach the art of using a camera, he would start by projecting the film backwards, or would play the film as many times as needed to forget the actors and the intrigue, in a way in which the values produced by the camera could not be removed in a thorough study".