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 presents Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld as part of their new box set, 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc. The picture has been window boxed.
I was excited to see how these films would look, unsure of what the outcome would be, and so far, based solely on Underworld (at the time of writing this I have not seen the other DVDs in the set yet) I don’t think I could be possibly more pleased; Criterion’s presentation of Underworld looks spectacular! The transfer itself is sharp and free of noise, handling the grain structure nicely and presenting no discernable artifacts. Contrast looks splendid, with sharp blacks and whites, and solid, distinguishable gray levels.
All issues present are limited to the source materials, though they’re nowhere near as bad as what I had prepared myself. There are scratches and other blemishes, frames look to be missing, and there is obvious pulsating and flickering, but in all this is quite mild and it was to be expected. What I didn’t expect was really just how clean this is. Past the scratches (which are actually not constant) there’s very little damage present. The film can look soft around the edges at times, maybe a little out of focus, but the image remains fairly sharp through most of the film.
In all it’s a wonderful surprise. There are some expected problems with the source, but really, in the end, it’s all quite minor. The picture here looks beautiful, and the wait was worth it.
The film itself is silent, but Criterion has included 2 orchestral tracks, both in stereo. One is a score performed by the Alloy Orchestra for a screening of the film at the 2007 New York Film Festival, while the other (the default track) is a new one by Robert Israel recorded especially for this release in 2010.
Since the tracks are new it should come as no surprise they both sound excellent, though I must admit I found the Israel track more dynamic. They’re both limited to the fronts but fill out the environment nicely, with some noticeable and seamless stereo effects. Quality is excellent, with no noise or distortion, and they’re both crystal clear.
As to which is better it will come to personal preference. The Israel track is a little more flamboyant and active than the alternate Alloy Orchestra track, but I think I preferred it. Those wanting something a little less energetic may enjoy the alternate track. Interestingly they each present different tones to some of the scenes but the quality of both is excellent.
Part of a bigger box set, this disc only contains one supplement (not counting the alternate audio tracks presenting different scores) but it’s significant.
Entitled Underworld: How it Came to Be, this 36-minute video essay hosted by UCLA professor Janet Bergstrom makes up for the lack of much else on the disc, including the lack of an audio commentary. While speaking over scenes from films, stills of 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, with great detail, and how it was seen by Charlie Chaplin who praised it and 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 the changes to make the film more visual, breaking down a few sequences. She has plenty of drawings and notes present, and even quotes from those that knew or worked with the director, including Evelyn Brent, who played as “Feathers,” 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 reedit von Stroheim’s The Wedding March. It’s a great feature, and makes much of anything else unnecessary for this disc.
(This review only refers to the supplements on the disc for Underworld. The other discs for the other films in the set contain their own supplements, and the set comes with a thick 95-page booklet, which does contain essays on the film.)
On its own this would be an excellent release. The transfer is beautiful, and the one lone supplement on the disc is an incredibly informative piece. A superb job by the folks at Criterion.