Josef von Sternberg’s riveting breakthrough is widely considered the film that launched the American gangster genre as we know it. George Bancroft plays heavy Bull Weed, a criminal kingpin whose jealous devotion to his moll, Feathers (Evelyn Brent), gets him into hot water with a rival hood and, ultimately, the authorities. Further complicating matters is the attraction that blossoms between Feathers and an alcoholic former lawyer (Clive Brook). With its supple, endlessly expressive camera work and tightly wound screenplay based on a story by legendary scribe Ben Hecht (who won an Oscar for it the first year the awards were given), Underworld solidified von Sternberg’s place as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new talents.
Criterion upgrades their 2010 box set 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg to Blu-ray, presenting the first film in the set, Underworld, on the first dual-layer disc of the 3-disc set. The film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and comes from a high-definition restoration, scanned from a 35mm fine-grain positive. The film has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
The same restoration that was used for Criterion’s previous DVD is the same one used here. I don’t believe any further restoration was done, though it’s admittedly hard to tell: source materials are littered with scratches, dirt, marks, stains, fluctuations, and more, just like the DVD. To be fair, even though damage can get very heavy from one shot to the next, it’s still nowhere near as bad as I had expected when the DVD was first released, and there are decent stretches where nothing of serious note ever pops up. All things considered, the film really is in remarkable condition.
What ended up being surprising, though, was that the image receives a decent boost thanks to the high-definition upgrade. Though still soft and a bit fuzzy around the edges thanks to the source materials, I still found the overall picture a bit sharper and details more distinct in places. Film grain doesn’t look as good as it could and can have a bit of a digital look at times, but the improved compression does make it look a bit finer and not as clunky and noisy as what was on the DVD. I thought contrast and grayscale also looked better, with smoother transitions between the grays.
All three films in the set could have benefitted from all-new scans and restorations, but as it is the Blu-ray still offers a sharp improvement over the DVD, at least in relation to the digital presentation.
Criterion carries over the two orchestral tracks from the original DVD edition: the 2010 score recorded by Robert Israel for that edition, and a 2007 score by the Alloy Orchestra. Both are presented in lossless 2.0 PCM stereo.
Though neither have any real stand-out moments, they’re crisp, clean, and dynamic, with strong range. Which track to go with will come down to preference, but it’s interesting comparing the two, as they seem to interpret a handful of scenes in shockingly different manners.
The DVD box set only had a handful of supplements spread out over the 3 discs, though I was pleased with the material. The Blu-ray set appears to carry everything over.
Underworld still only comes with one substantial supplement: Underworld: How it Came to Be, an excellent 36-minute video essay hosted by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom that manages to cover the lack of much else on the disc. While speaking over scenes from films, photographs, documents, letters, notes, and sketches, Bergstrom first covers von Sternberg’s early life and how he managed to get into film. She covers his first film, The Salvation Hunters and how it was seen and praised by Charlie Chaplin who picked it up to distribute through United Artists. From there von Sternberg moved on to other projects, though nothing really took off, Chaplin even seeming to want to bury one of his films, A Woman of the Sea. She then gets into his move to Paramount, and how he came to become the director of Underworld. From this point Bergstrom concentrates on the film, giving a very detailed history of its productions, and problems the film’s writer, Ben Hecht, had with the finished product (finding it a little sentimental). She analyzes some of the differences between the finished film and the final script, and how von Sternberg made these script changes to make the film more visual, Bergstrom even breaking down some scenes. She has plenty of drawings and notes present, and even quotes from those that knew or worked with the director, including Evelyn Brent (“Feathers” in the film), who goes into great detail about working with “Joe” and her admiration of him. She then covers the advertising, it’s release (the film becoming a surprise hit for Paramount) and then immediate jobs von Sternberg got after that (including having to re-edit von Stroheim’s The Wedding March). In it’s 36-minute runtime it does an outstanding job covering the film’s making and von Sternberg’s early career.
This Blu-ray edition doesn’t offer an enormous upgrade, but it still carries over the same supplement and does offer a noticeably sharper and cleaner digital presentation in comparison to the DVD.