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Underworld U.S.A. (1961) was writer-director Sam Fuller's staccato spin on Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo by way of the ancient Greeks. The property had come to him through the executives at Columbia Pictures, who acquired the rights to a newspaper serial about organized crime during the years of Prohibition. Humphrey Bogart had optioned the serial originally and after the actor's death from cancer in 1957 the rights were picked up by Sam Briskin, helming the Columbia mothership in the years following the demise of his old boss Harry Cohn. Fuller updated the story, which he conceived as a crime-does-pay parable for Eisenhower America. The studio nixed Fuller's brash concept for a title sequence depicting the comely members of a prostitute's union forming a map of the United States with their bare backs and the post-credits assassination of the union leader, who has the barrel of a revolver thrust into her mouth and her brains blown out by a Mafia gunsel. Undaunted by the front office censorship, Fuller shifted the focus of the story to an underworld loner and his quest to bring about the fall of the gang bosses responsible for the murder of his father. Briskin and the suits at Columbia approved of this new tack, assuring Fuller that "the public loves revenge."
The first gangster movie Sam Fuller ever saw was Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927). With the title Underworld U.S.A., Fuller tips his hat to the von Sternberg film even as he sets out to explode the clichs of classic gangster pictures. Beginning on a comfortless New Year's Eve twenty-some years in the past, the story finds 14-year-old anti-hero Tolly Devlin (David Kent) rolling a drunk and running his ill-gotten gains home to a father he sees beaten to death in an alley (a primal scene recalling Batman hero Bruce Wayne's boyhood orphaning). Shrugging off the avuncular arm of a sympathetic lawman (Larry Gates), Tolly hops onto the back of the meat wagon bearing his dead dad to the morgue, declaring "I'll get those punks myself!" Graduating from orphanage to reform school to state prison (and growing up to be a scar-faced Cliff Robertson), Tolly encounters the first of his father's murderers while in stir and extracts from the dying man (Peter Brocco) the names of the other hitmen. Tolly's quest for vengeance will take him from the gutter to the penthouse suites of organized crime, a meteoric rise that comes with the hidden cost of a spectacular fall.
Even with the studio vetting, Underworld U.S.A. remains brutal stuff, with characters beaten, shot, drowned, burned alive and one 9 year-old innocent run down in the street as a warning against finking. Fuller's dialogue is frank in its acknowledgement of teenage prostitution and drug use. "We won't stay big if we lose our grip," cautions a syndicate kingpin who hides his cartels behind charitable acts while peddling dope to school kids. "Don't tell me the end of a needle has a conscience."
Fuller's amorality tale benefits immeasurably from vivid and persuasive performances by Beatrice Kay (as Tolly's surrogate mother, who has one hell of a doll fetish), Richard Rust (whose preternatural cool as a gum-chewing, shades-wearing mob enforcer gets the jump on Clu Gulager's The Killers  act by a couple of years) and Dolores Dorn as "Cuddles," the "mixed-up broad" of a murder witness whom Tolly uses as leverage to get at the men responsible for his father's death. Tolly and Cuddles earn their place among crime cinema's great doomed lovers (Dorn goes to town with a drunk scene set in a city park where she sucks a hunk of ice like she owes it money) but equally interesting is the subtle homoeroticism that hangs in the air between Robertson's manipulative Tolly and Rust's gunsel Gus Cottahee like a lingering whiff of cordite. The two actors have a good time with their Mutt & Jeff pairing, which echoes the complicated gangster/undercover cop relationships at the heart of Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949), both Ringo Lam's City on Fire (1987) and Quentin Tarantino's semi-remake Reservoir Dogs (1992), and David Cronenberg's recent Eastern Promises (2007).
Producer: Samuel Fuller
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Cliff Robertson (Tolly Devlin), Dolores Dorn (Cuddles), Beatrice Kay (Sandy), Paul Dubov (Gela), Robert Emhardt (Earl Connors), Larry Gates (Driscoll), Richard Rust (Gus Cottahee), Gerald Milton (Gunther), Allan Gruener (Smith).
by Richard Harland Smith
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