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The Underworld Story

The Underworld Story(1950)

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teaser The Underworld Story (1950)

Though Dan Duryea gets top billing in The Underworld Story (1950), the film's third act belongs to Herbert Marshall. Nominal villain of the piece, one who withholds information in the aftermath of a murder committed in a sleepy New England village that could save an innocent woman from execution, Marshall stays mum because to do otherwise (he argues) would undo decades of good work and tarnish the reputation of an institution devoted to upholding truth. Marshall's conflicted newspaper magnate is offered in stark contrast to Duryea's crass opportunist, whose manipulation of people and events is something akin to art, with the fourth estate being his chosen medium; while scoop-chaser Duryea appears to be doing the right thing (forming a defense league for the accused and marshalling the citizenry to support her) for all the wrong reasons (profit and fame), Marshall's publisher finds himself doing all the wrong things in support of ideals that are, well before the fadeout, hopelessly devalued. The film ends with a triangulation of protagonist and antagonist with their opposite number, an oily mobster (Howard Da Silva) who turns out to be the only honest man in the room.

Based on an original story by "Craig Rice" (nom de plume of mystery writer Georgiana Randolph Rice, who also enjoyed success on radio and television and hit the cover of Time magazine in January 1946) hammered into screenplay form by Henry Blankfort, The Underworld Story beat Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (aka, The Big Carnival, 1951) to American movie houses by a full year - and in many ways it is the more interesting film. While Wilder's masterful expose of the machinations of the press deserves every critical plaudit received, The Underworld Story is not content to personify the problem of media manipulation in the corporality of a single character but rather spreads its net wide to implicate even those who believe they act in the service of common good. Close to the film's heart is the tactic of scapegoating, offering up of a ceremonial victim as a magnet for blame so that the wheels of power and progress might turn unhindered. By the film's final setpiece, laid in the shadowy lair of Da Silva's big city mob boss, Duryea's character has undergone a redemptive change of heart - but he has played his last Ace and is left to beg pitiably for his life while Marshall, as broken in spirit as Duryea is in body, slaps down the trump card. The look on Da Silva's face is priceless.

The criminally neglected The Underworld Story anticipates a pair of Hollywood classics that followed at the distance of several years. The use of racial tension in a small American town as a plot accelerator may remind viewers of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), though this film's hiring of a white actress (Lifeboat's Mary Anderson) to play an African-American undermines that effort to a certain degree. (No surprise that the decision to cast a white actress even though the script specifically refers to the character as "a nigger" came from the producers, who feared the already controversial storyline might become even more off-putting for middle America if the film were regarded as a race picture.) Late in the film, as Duryea attempts to bribe glib big city lawyer Roland Winters (a wonderful performance streets away from his recurring turn as Charlie Chan for Monogram Pictures) to do his best for the accused woman only to be told his cash offering is insufficient, his rejoinder ("How fat can you get?") brings to mind Jack Nicholson's line from Chinatown (1974), when conscience-stricken private detective Jake Gittes asks villain Noah Cross "How much better can you eat?"

The subversive cant of The Underworld Story and director Cy Enfield's earlier indictment of mob violence, The Sound of Fury (1950), drew the attention of the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Enfield was branded sympathetic to the Communist cause and subpoenaed... but fled the country rather than be coerced into naming names. Enfield directed a handful of pictures under assumed names in the United Kingdom before signing his masterworks, Hell Drivers (1957), Zulu (1964), and Sands of the Kalahari (1965), all collaborations with actor Stanley Baker. Unlike Enfield, Howard Da Silva was not afraid to stand up to HUAC but his bravado cost him his livelihood; after playing a cop in Joseph Losey's M (1951) he would not work again in Hollywood for ten years, returning to the big screen in a supporting role in Frank Perry's David and Lisa (1962). The third member of the Underworld Story team to fall afoul of the Red Scare was screenwriter Henry Blankfort, who likewise was blacklisted; unable to find work in Hollywood, the former playwright worked in public relations for the Revell Toy Company before founding his own publicity firm.

By Richard Harland Smith

Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist by Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (University of Minnesota Press, 1997)
Henry Blankfort obituary, The Los Angeles Times, June 22, 1993
Hal E. Chester obituary by Joel Finler, The Guardian, April 16, 2012

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