Underworld USA

Cuddles and Tolly

Shock, horror, probe. Sam Fuller’s Underworld USA is further proof that the former crime journalist and pulp novelist’s knack for attention-grabbing material survived the transition from the page to the screen.

Fuller was a newspaper copyboy aged 12, a crime reporter aged 17, a novelist aged 23 and a screenwriter aged 26. A man in a hurry with a newspaperman’s broad-brush approach, a desire to tell a story boldly and clearly… and then move on, in the early 1960s he became particularly associated with low budget issue-driven features that were all about the lurid sell – Shock Corridor (mental illness), The Crimson Kimono (interracial relationships) and The Naked Kiss (prostitution).

Underworld USA fits that groove. An adaptation of a Saturday Evening Post feature by journalist Joseph Dineen, it’s the story of a 14-year-old juvenile delinquent who witnesses his father being killed in a city alley and sets out on a decades-long mission to destroy the men who did it. Not being Bruce Wayne, Tolly Devlin cannot do this by deploying extreme wealth and putting on a bat costume. Instead he uses low animal cunning on his long trek towards justice, first setting himself off on a life of crime with a purpose, to wind up in the state penitentiary where he’ll quiz the now-imprisoned gang boss responsible for his father’s death and find out the names of the henchmen who were also there. In a take-no-prisoners frame of mind, Tolly is going to make sure everyone involved gets whacked.

Phase one of his plan achieved, and now back on the outside, Tolly puts phase two into operation, a complex scheme which involves getting close to the former henchmen, now all top crime bosses in their own right, and playing them off against each other and against the police, with Tolly in the middle pulling all the strings.

Slightly complicating things is a femme fatale called Cuddles (no kidding), a peroxide blonde offering the loner Tolly a chance at normality, wife, kids, if he’s prepared to take the chance. But, also a bit like Bruce Wayne, Tolly is consumed by his quest and is not as easily won around to domesticity as he is lured into bed.

The three crime bosses sweat it out
Sweating the crime bosses

Fuller does it all in the filmic equivalent of a 72-point headline, the characters shrieking off the page, the action absolutely unequivocal and Harry Sukman’s crimetastic soundtrack blaring away, underlining every development and then adding a screamer for emphasis.

In no-messing-about style, when Fuller wants explication, he just drops it in, into the mouth of whoever’s handy. So when the audience need to be brought up to speed fast on exactly how bad the bad guys are, up pops a handy cop to explain that the gangs are now selling drugs to kids at the school gate, or Villain A tells Villain B exactly how much he’s bunging the local police chief or the union bosses to keep them sweet. It gives the whole thing an immediate “ripped from the headlines” feel. Subtle it ain’t.

It’s Cliff Robertson in the lead as Tolly, one of the great nearly men of Hollywood – he was offered Steve McQueen’s role in The Sand Pebbles, turned down the chance to be Dirty Harry. “Nobody made more mediocre films that I did,” he once told an interviewer. Maybe so, but he’s not mediocre here and his oddly unreadable character – mad? bad? misunderstood? traumatised? – adds nuance to a film ready for it. And the fact that Tolly has to think on his feet to make both the cops and the gangsters dance to his tune makes him a doubly fascinating character.

Less nuanced, ripe, lip-quivering acting comes from Dolores Dorn as the sexy, damaged Cuddles and Beatrice Kay, as Sandy, the mother figure in Tolly’s life, a superannuated tart with heart in the Thelma Ritter mould. They sum up what this is: a melodrama, unafraid to reach for the histrionics, to spell out in big letters what’s going on. Hey, that’s journalism.

Underworld USA – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

The Samuel Fuller Film Collection (includes Underworld USA) – buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Shock Corridor

Peter Breck with Hari Rhodes

Shock Corridor is a great example of the indie writer/director Sam Fuller’s ability to make films with a social subtext that weren’t overwhelmed by worthiness. Not being a studio movie it’s got no famous names in it, and isn’t shot in colour (apart from a few drop-ins). Instead Fuller and DP Stanley Cortez (who was instrumental in making The Night of the Hunter so memorably sinister) opt for a breezy film noir style of harsh lighting that’s quick to set up, effective and cheap – together they turned the film out in ten days. It also looks great in the Criterion Blu-ray I watched.

A look at the plot tells us where Fuller’s real interest lay. It follows an investigative reporter into a mental asylum, posing as an inmate, to track down a killer. Ambitious Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is hoping that this story is going to be the one that will win him the Pulitzer Prize.

A reporter hopes to find a murderer and that’s a Pulitzer-winning story? It does not make any sense, and since Fuller was himself an ex-reporter, he knows it. But then we’re not here for the plot.

Knowing how to load on the lurid to keep audiences with him, Fuller introduces Johnny’s girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers). She’s a stripper, but to make Johnny’s madness convincing she’s going to pose as his sister and claim that he’s been having an incestuous relationship with her. No, that doesn’t bear much scrutiny either.

Johnny has been schooled in the right things to say (he’s a hair fetish, supposedly) by Dr Fong (Philip Ahn), a man with portraits of both Jung and Freud on his wall. The doc’s bona fides established, Johnny soon finds himself inside the asylum.

It’s a gentle regime at first. But the hydrotherapy and dance therapy give way to shock treatments and Johnny surreptitiously starts to interview three witnesses to the murder: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes) and Boden (Gene Evans). In against-the-clock style he’s inching his way towards the identity of the killer while the treatments nibble away at his mind.

Constance Towers
Constance Towers as stripper Cathy

“Whom god wishes to destroy he first makes mad” runs the quote attributed to Euripides bookending the movie. Stuart, Trent and Boden are all mad. The first is a Korean War veteran who believes he’s fighting the Civil War, the second is a black man full of white supremacist “hate speech” (as we’d call it today) who thinks he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the third is a nuclear and NASA scientist who now fills his days with childish drawings.

Somewhat schematically, it’s America that’s driven these three men mad – war, racism and impending nuclear catastrophe – and Fuller goes to town with these three characters, loading them up with lurid rantings and giving them plenty of screen time parcelled out in long takes. Rhodes in particular really gets his teeth into his unsettling role as the black man who hates black men. Tough stuff in 1963.

There are women. A ward full of “nymphos”, where Johnny accidentally finds himself at one point and is set upon by a ravening gaggle of attractive harpies who mostly look like they’re trying out as stand-ins for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s either an eyeroll or another instance of Fuller’s pitch for the lurid, take your pick.

This is not an exposé of an inhumane system. In fact the inmates are looked after fairly well. It’s not a warm-up for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the insane people were the ones running the asylum. Here the insane are properly, melodramatically bonkers rather than the sedated-to-a-shuffle unfortunates you tend to meet in later films.

As Johnny advances towards the truth, and Cathy worries about his mental health, the pace remains brisk, the lighting stark and Peter Breck gets to show he’s a better actor than his career stats (TV work, mostly) suggest.

I won’t ruin the enjoyment by divulging the ending. Suffice to say that the movie itself eventually goes grandly and gloriously off its chump amid a mass breakout of scenery chewing. It’s all madly entertaining but Fuller has also delivered a swingeing social critique in plain sight and got away with it. He’d follow up the following year with The Naked Kiss, more lurid, socially attuned melodrama, with Constance Towers back as his star, playing a call girl who decides to become a teacher of disabled kids. Of course.

Shock Corridor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021