‘Underworld U.S.A.’ or — The Corruption of Shadows?
Have you ever wondered why Sam Fuller and his films can have such a devoted following? What is it about his work that makes some fans flip out? Well, you might be about to find out.
‘Underworld U.S.A.’ (1961) concerns Tolly (an excellent Cliff Robertson) who is in turn concerned with infiltrating the mob so he can get to the four hoodlums who beat his father to death when Tolly was only 14. We don’t see his father’s death but, just as young Tolly does, only the shadows of the brutal beating on an alley wall, the image of the inherent violence inside America projected on some corrupted cinema screen.
The path into the mob is to lead a life of crime so Tolly becomes a small-time safe-cracker, something Tolly does not for the peanuts he can lift but the chance of capture and eventual incarceration in the same prison where Farrar, one of his father’s murderers, now lies dying in a hospital bed.
Once inside Tolly threatens the dying man into revealing the names of his accomplices, now all high up in the world of syndicated crime. It is this organisation that Tolly is able to climb his way up upon his release but rather than going after the three remaining thugs, now all “respectable businessmen”, himself he engages in a dangerous game of playing the mob off against the United States government law enforcement agencies. Tolly believes this will allow him to walk away free from both parties. Tolly is smart, but even more naive.
Will Tolly avenge his father? Will the mob figure out they have a traitor in their midst? And even if Tolly is successful is he clever enough to know that to kill the snake you must chop off its head? Watch ‘Underworld U.S.A.’ and find out!
Fuller’s film might seem from that outline your typical gangster/noir fare as mob bosses are betrayed and taken down from within their own ranks. What Fuller brings to all this are his usual punches to the gut, both cinematic and emotional, some dazzling black and white cinematography and the notion that America, and not just its crime, could be rotten to the core. Throw in some seething sexual throbbings that threaten to get as out of control as Tolly’s vengeance and you’ve got a full-bloodied Fuller flick.
It’s this combination of Fuller’s unflinching gaze (almost as intense as Tolly’s own), a rejection of sentimentality and the revelation of the true nature of power that drives this tale and it hits like a fist to the sternum. The authorities want the mob as much as Tolly but how can you arrest, let alone prosecute, an outfit that’s so embedded into the very fabric of the nation? Would you not have to arrest America itself? After all, if crime becomes too organised does that not equal Capitalism? And remember this was made over a decade before ‘The Godfather’ (1972).
The syndicate’s head is Connors and is played like a sort of poolside Jabba the Hut with cucumber eye-pads by Robert Emhardt and is one of the most loathsome, slimy and truly frightening mob bosses you could meet, more so because of his veneer of respectability (he makes it a virtue of donating, and letting it be known he donates, to charity). I bet he not only votes Republican but has considered running for them.
When Connors orders the killing of Tolly’s squeeze (Dolores Dorn as “Cuddles”, a name which feels and tastes like tasteless joke waiting for a sick punchline) there’s the sensation of an entire world about to collapse.
‘Underworld U.S.A.’ is a blisteringly savage film and on so many levels: it is visually striking; emotionally and psychologically it packs an unrestrained wallop and it bristles with so many barbs and spikes it’s like embracing a cactus.
So if you ever wondered what the fuss about Sam Fuller was all about then it was about this, it was explicitly about films like this.