The Underworld Story is full of these wild narrative beats forming the foundation of a new normal. It’s like playing an unwieldy game of connect the dots. Take the opening scene. It’s straightforward enough. The district attorney and a gangster informer named Turk are injured on the steps of the hall of justice. They didn’t fall down. There’s a deliberate hit put out on them.
But this particular story has no special investment in apprehending these perpetrators with shotguns and a high-powered car. It plays like more of a misdirect than a primary plot point. Instead, the story slingshots to The Times Gazette‘s hard-bitten reporter Mike Rees who is on the chopping block for not withholding a story.
It’s this breaking news flash that got those same men killed. It’s all his fault, and he finds himself blackballed throughout the industry for breaking their unspoken code of conduct. He’s finished — a leper in the industry.
Dan Duryea is nothing if not a journeyman actor. He went through a number of phases even for the uninitiated. I can think of seeing him in things as diverse as The Little Foxes and The Pride of the Yankees (also as a journalist). Then, came the days of ill repute in everything from Scarlet Street to Too Late for Tears. These were his bread and butter, and he fit the mechanics and the malaise of the material like few others.
What’s marvelous in a picture like The Underworld Story is how he gets leading man status — he was an actor of that caliber surely — but he still plays a starring role as slick and unprincipled as ever.
It goes to show he can play either side of the spectrum — good or bad — and it still comes off mostly the same. There’s something in his delivery that makes it always sound like he’s sneering, disgusted with every human being he has the displeasure of running across. The feelings are mutual.
With nowhere else to go, he sets up shop in Lakeville. In an apt bit of exposition, we learn it is home not only to a church lane but also to a church street…and a graveyard. This is the world he’s walking into. He does his best to play the part of an honest-to-goodness, salt-of-the-earth American. He’ll do anything to survive.
In fact, he gets out of the big ocean so he can poison the water somewhere else. In a small pond where the water’s stagnant, all his rancid practices can fester and congeal into pond scum. The humble paper itself is run by Catherine Harris (Gail Storm) wet behind the ears and her faithful colleague Parky who is a veteran, but he’s used to a leisurely, benevolent sort of reporting. Harris wants none of Mike’s local news with a slant.
When the daughter of the local newspaper magnate (Herbert Marshall) is found murdered in the woods, they have no recourse to run the story. Reese is way ahead of it, prepared to nuke the news flash and blow up circulation all around town. It’s the kind of tactics that might easily get him back into the big leagues.
It also occurred to me right when we see the hustling, bustling frenzy around the murder scene, it plays a bit like a B-side to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (though it does sit on the right side of history having premiered a year earlier). We have some of that media circus going on here albeit in an alternate small-town setting.
The waves of swirling melodrama are the movie at its most overwrought and tiresome. None of this is original or attention-grabbing in the way a good news story might be. It also pushes the envelope on plausibility with these wonky near-nonsequiturs cropping up every which way.
As such, The Underworld Story proves to be a wildly uneven picture. At times there’s so much to latch on to and ruminate over. Other passages of the film feel downright tacky, whether it’s the dialogue or the rather fervent scoring providing a rampant array of dramatic underpinnings.
When it’s grounded in ideas of the press of what it stands for and how it can be used to manipulate and capitulate situations, that’s when the movie sings with something wielding a definite voice.
We watch Reese continually taking advantage of the situation. First, he’s rather comically running up the bargaining price for their exclusive to his liking by juggling two phone calls at once. He’s also prepared to use Molly Rankin. She’s the girl wanted as a suspect in the young woman’s murder.
The Sentinel vows to prop her up, but far from championing her as a symbol of prevailing justice in the town, it feels dangerously close to a trial, with free publicity attached for the paper. Of course, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The Defense Fund becomes his latest scheme, which actually proves itself to be very successful in earning public support.
Alas, the public is fickle. The local paper starts sinking in quicksand as they meet a media juggernaut and watch Molly lose all credibility. The last thing to be done is to concede and plead guilty. However, Molly comes from a place of integrity — all she has are her personal convictions that she’s innocent and she won’t give it up — even if pleading guilty to manslaughter might actually allow her to keep living. To pragmatic, unscrupulous sorts, throwing in the towel makes logical sense. She, however, must abide by the truth.
Ultimately, Mike pleads with a newspaperman in his ivory tower — there’s actually some genuine concern there for once — but he also gets fingered by the jovial gangster who lays out threats with a smile. Howard da Silva makes an early appearance only to show up later and practically steal the show. It’s not simply about malice; it’s how he’s able to mask it with this kind of menacing conviviality. There’s a dissonance between the threat in each of his measured words and his outwardly cordial manner.
In the end, true to form, Duryea gets the crud beaten out of him, enough that he earns a date with an ambulance at the end of the picture. Even then when his girl steps in to ride off by his side, it’s hard not to consider their chemistry in the moment. They never felt like a couple, at least not to the degree such an action implied. Gail Storm, no fault of her own, is written to flit back and forth between indignation and admiration. She isn’t allowed to really stand on her own two feet.
It’s a final dagger in a movie that’s a bumpy excursion and still a calculated risk for Dan Duryea aficionados. The movie certainly isn’t averse to risks, taking on the theme of a black woman accused of murder and theft. It has a lot of potential, although the incisive edge is neutered by whitewashing the part and casting Mary Anderson in the role, no doubt to placate southern audiences. It’s a shame.
There’s only one last point that I feel compelled to bring up given the historical moment. The Underworld Story oozes Blacklist from the moment Duryea gets forced out of town and can’t win a favor, even from his friends. This is indicative of the story, but we can also consider all the personnel involved. Cy Enfield and Howard da Silva among them would wind up victims of HUAC destined for ex-communication from the Hollywood majority.
Mind you, these weren’t coincidences. People on both sides knew what they were doing. It proves that art really does have an impact on life. I would use the term art loosely with Enfield’s picture, though it does have a certain trashy allure around the corners — flaws and all.