Things are tough all over. Pretty soon a man won’t be able to sell his own mother.
There are plenty of examples of film noir weaving contemporary social issues into the tales featured. Through the 1950s it’s noticeable how the whole matter of organized crime came to play a more significant part in the world of noir. Cy Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) is an early example of this trend, although it also takes a look at journalistic ethics, racial prejudice, class divisions, and oblique references to the blacklist. This all adds up to a potent and varied cocktail, one which could easily have become overwhelming in its efforts to cover so many bases. However, the script remains clearly focused throughout and the end product is therefore very satisfying.
Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) is the classic slick city reporter, a man for whom the chance of a scoop and the accompanying paycheck trumps all other considerations. This absence of moral qualms is clearly illustrated by the opening scene of the movie, which sees a mob informant gunned down on the court steps. The responsibility for this killing is laid largely at the feet of Reese, who wrote the story tipping the gangsters off to the location of the stool pigeon. Still, Reese is one of those guys who’s not quite as smooth as he thinks he is – all the angling and sharp patter can’t disguise an unfortunate tendency for things to blow up in his face. While his exclusive story had lethal consequences for one man, it also leads to Reese getting his marching orders. Worse is to come though when he finds his name is poison and he can’t get a job on any paper in town. So what’s a guy to do under the circumstances? In this case, he pays a visit to Carl Durham (Howard da Silva), the mob boss he unwittingly helped out when he put the finger on the informant. With a modest payoff in his pocket from Durham, Reese takes himself to a small town where he can purchase a half interest in a local newspaper. Almost immediately it looks like our “hero” has landed on his feet again. No sooner has he talked the owner, Cathy Harris (Gale Storm), into accepting his offer than a major story breaks right under their noses. The daughter-in-law of a local blue-blood publisher, E J Stanton (Herbert Marshall), has been murdered and Reese scents the opportunity to make journalistic capital out of this. Initially, it looks like a gift, and the revelation that the deceased’s maid may have been involved adds a bit of spice. In reality though, it’s another situation which Reese has misjudged and he soon finds himself getting out of his depth. The draw of a society killing and the allegations that the perpetrator may have been a black woman offers the chance for exploitation and therefore money. But it’s soon made clear to the viewer that the real killer was someone else, someone much closer to the victim. Reese’s cynical and insincere crusade is about to backfire on him as dirty family secrets, racism and an unholy alliance between the mob and old money combine to present the kind of threat his sharp spiel won’t be enough to deflect.
The Underworld Story was one of the last films Cy Endfield made before the blacklist and the HUAC hearings would force him out of Hollywood and send him across the ocean to pursue his career in Britain. It’s easy to see how, in the volatile and paranoid climate which prevailed then, a film like this would have drawn some unwelcome attention. The main protagonist is a man who has himself been essentially blacklisted by his own industry, who digs under the apparently respectable facade of a pillar of civilized democracy (the free press) and reveals corruption, duplicity and outright criminality. The racial aspect adds another layer of unpleasantness, though this is only a small part of the story and handled in a fairly half-hearted fashion anyway. No, the real issue here is the subversion of the press and moral bankruptcy of those holding sway over public opinion. Essentially we’re shown three separate yet interrelated faces of the fourth estate: the weakness and ethical ambivalence of Marshall, the crass opportunism of Duryea, and the naive idealism of Storm. Endfield contributed to the script sourced from a story by Craig Rice (which probably accounts for the touches of light humor sprinkled throughout) and the critique of a society manipulated by corrupt and powerful men is always to the fore – the scene where Marshall sits around with local dignitaries and cronies working out how best to rid themselves of the troublesome Duryea is effective in its repugnance. The cinematography was handled by Stanley Cortez, resulting in some nicely lit images which add to the noir atmosphere.
Dan Duryea was a fine piece of casting in the role of Reese, his frequent portrayal of charming villains setting up the ambivalence of his character well. Reese, at least until he experiences a late change of heart (or maybe even an acquisition of one), is basically an anti-heroic figure. His main concern for most of the film’s running time is the state of his own bank account, and Duryea was very good at getting across the chiseling soul of Reese. Even as he’s doing his level best to sell out sympathetic characters, you can’t help but like him – not an easy role to pull off but one which was tailor-made for Duryea. Herbert Marshall was another guy skilled at playing complex figures, and he had a real knack for displaying a kind of outraged dignity. Again, you shouldn’t really feel anything much for him but Marshall’s talent for bringing a human face to Stanton means his dilemma becomes understandable. For me, a large part of the film’s success comes down to the way both Marshall and Duryea portray the various shades of gray of their respective characters.
There’s good support provided by Gale Storm as Duryea’s partner in the newspaper and love interest, but her role is essentially one-dimensional. The same could be said for the other cast members I guess: Howard da Silva has a high time chewing up the scenery as the grinning and uncouth gang boss and acts as a great contrast to Marshall’s refinement, while Michael O’Shea’s DA is mostly driven by vindictiveness, particularly where Duryea is concerned. One of the oddest casting choices was Mary Anderson as the black maid everyone suspects of the murder. The fact that Anderson is actually white, and never really looks anything else (there was no overt black face make-up involved) despite everyone alluding to her race, is a bit distracting. The racial matter does form part of the story but it’s of secondary importance at best. Had it been more central, then the whiteness of the actress would have been more problematic. Anderson’s work is perfectly good but I did wonder why she was chosen for that part in the first place.
The Underworld Story is out on DVD via the Warner Archive in the US and also on pressed disc in Spain from Absolute. I have the Spanish release and it looks pretty good – there are a few isolated instances of print damage but overall the image is quite strong. The picture is sharp throughout and the contrast levels show off the noir cinematography nicely. There is a choice of the original English soundtrack or a Spanish dub and subtitles are optional – they can be disabled from the setup menu. This is a solid film noir from a director I like and it’s always a pleasure to see Dan Duryea in a leading role. He’ll be best remembered for his villainous turns but I enjoy watching him in those rare movies where he got to play the good guy. The Underworld Story isn’t the best known film noir out there but it’s a good production and worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre, director or star.