Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

18 05 2014

Samuel Fuller’s reputation is cemented, it’s far too late to challenge it. The conventional wisdom suggests that he might not have made the most perfect films, but he instead fueled the ones he did make with a passion and fervor that it indemnified anything that would conventionally be read as “bad” filmmaking. Fuller’s reputation is immensely entertaining because, while outside of Hollywood, he wasn’t working in complete opposition to Hollywood filmmaking. His films then become a study of the small things that are conventionally diagnosed as “good” and “bad” in American cinema. Underworld U.S.A. is unique in the Fuller filmography, its one of the few films (of which I’ve seen) that seems to fit most closely in the mainstream mold. Even as it feels more perfected, it has one of Fuller’s most riveting political observations. It feels closer to Hollywood, but what it says couldn’t be further away from it.


On New Year’s Eve, Tolly Devlin witnesses the death of his father at the hands of four men. The trauma of the situation leads him down a lifestyle of crime, where he ends up in prison. There, he becomes a model prisoner. Volunteering at the hospital, and closely listening to the doctors. His motivation is for revenge. He’s trying to find Vic Farrar, a dying man who may have been responsible for his father’s death. He gets Farrar alone and asks him for the names of the other three men. Since the murder of Tolly’s father, the remaining three murderers have climbed to the stop of the crime syndicate. Out to get his revenge, Tolly decides to work for both sides, all while living with his mother-figure, Sandy.


After a disappointing revisit with The Naked Kiss (I find the film’s attitude towards sex work rather paternalistic), I was afraid of exhausting myself on Fuller. Underworld U.S.A. is kind of the perfect film for someone who admires him, but who might also grow impatient with the filmmaker’s didactic and simplistic approach. Here, he’s a bit more reserved, and the energy that he usually uses to plow his hamfisted and simplistic politics through a film’s core, is instead used for something refreshing here. There’s part of this film that feel remarkably typical for the noir genre, but then one takes a step back and realizes that the protagonist is a grown man trying to solve a crime while living with his mother. He actually touches upon something far more interesting, politically speaking, then he does in his work that I’ve seen. It’s the idea that the American criminal justice system is not just corrupt, but that it is intentionally structured to benefit the people at top, and keep those at the bottom down.


At the surface, Underworld U.S.A. is, in addition to a revenge film, one of just countless films that depicts corruption within the police force. While many of these films get praised for being “daring” they are actually the opposite. The “crooked cops” motif actually reaffirms the idea that cops, generally speaking, are working with our best interests in mind. This sounds like conflicting ideas, but the crime drama that depicts corrupt police usually involves either downfall or a suggestion that they’re in the wrong. They are positioned as abnormal versions of the moral upstanding officer, and they usually see their justice. I mention all this because Underworld U.S.A. gets right what so many of these films get wrong: it does not suggest that there’s anything unusual about this kind of behavior. It recognizes the crooked cop as almost a cliche, something inevitable, which is the truth.


Perhaps more important than this attitude, is Fuller’s idea that the system itself is entirely corrupt. This sounds like the waxings of a teenage rebel, but there’s no denying that the criminalization of certain bodies over others does not come from a “mistake” by the authorities, instead it is a conscious hegemonic move. Underworld U.S.A. is almost completely white, which doesn’t provide Fuller to come all the way around on these musings and make a more typically Fullerian insight that is more pointed. However, it might not need to be there. The bureaucracy of the justice system is presented as both impenetrable, yet easy to influence. In Dolly’s case, it helps to be a schmoozer and to be a white male, and also to be in a dramatic movie. That sounds like I’m writing him off and the movie off, but these opposing ideas do exist in America’s crime system. It can be influenced easily by the powers that be, all if it serves the purpose to make them richer (see the War on Drugs) and maintain control of those at the bottom. Fuller maybe didn’t realize he was illustrating this complex within America, but maybe the fact that here, he finally seems comfortable and less eager. He seems to have something more interesting to say when he’s not entirely sure of what there is to say.




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