A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Moran, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl. ... See full summary »
'Nobody helps me -- I help them!' boasts open-handed gangster Bull Weed, handing over what will prove to be the best investment in his high-spending career: a thousand dollars that will put the literate 'Rolls Royce' of vagrants back on his feet. Living it up in the Twenties with the aid of cool but smouldering moll Feathers, the Bull lords it over the law and his rivals alike -- specifically big Buck Mulligan, whose floral-tributes business echoes that of a certain real-life Chicago gangster... Yet Feathers, prize possession and object of envy, proves his weak point; and in the end, Bull Weed will indeed come to need help from others, and more than he has ever needed it before. But can Rolls Royce and Feathers still give it to him? And will the Bull accept?Written by
A lot of people avoid silent films at all costs, and I understand that totally. Many of these films are stiff, and the plots are either sentimental or obvious.
But there are many reasons to watch a good, or great, silent film. Sometimes the acting, whatever its expressive style, is really wonderful. Often the photography and editing is really terrific and sophisticated. And the stories can be fast, fresh, and even pertinent.
And finally, the silent films easiest for the uninitiated to approach are at the very end of the silent era. That would be 1927. See Joan Crawford in The Unknown for the bizarre, or Murnau's Sunrise for eloquence, or consider this film, the first major film by the soon to be legendary Josef von Sternberg. The only thing that might put off some people is the exaggerated expressions in one of the three main characters, Bull Weed. But go with that flow and you'll see not only some more subtle acting, but a sweet, violent, complex plot interweave in just an hour or so (81 minutes, though there is an 87 minute version out there if you can find it, Netflix doesn't have it). The Criterion disc version is really clean (another reason to consider this as an intro silent films, since it isn't broken up or scratched to death).
"Underworld" is filmed with visual complexity even though it lacks some of the virtuosic moving camera of Murnau. The sets are simple but convincing, and the shift in attention to the gangster side of the story, complete with guns and molls and the precursors (or pre-precursors) of film noir, is gripping. It's not as intense as the heyday of gangster films just four or five years later, but it has if anything more emotional sophistication. The story was written by the legendary Ben Hecht, which might explain some of its success.
Von Sternberg you say? Well, he was a master at creating aura, and between him and Dietrich a whole new level of starmaking savvy was born. This, as a first film, and as a last minute replacement, was expected to flop, and was released in a single New York theater. Word spread, however, and it became a hit. You can see why. Great stuff.
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