The first time I saw “Underworld U.S.A.” was back in 1961 at the Loew’s Oriental in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. I lived about six blocks away and Saturday afternoons I was a regular there, if not at the Loew’s I would be at one of the other two theaters that were close by. The film opened on the lower half of a twin bill, the top feature was “Mad Dog Coll”, another low budget cheapie released by Columbia.
At the time I had no idea who Sam Fuller was, hell I didn’t even know who Cliff Robertson was; after all I was only about twelve years old and for a kid in love with gangster films, this twin bill seemed like heaven. While both were minuscule productions,” Mad Dog Coll”, as New York Times film critic, Howard Thompson states, “belongs in the pound.” It is a paint by the numbers film, a one dimensional work best noted for early appearances from Telly Savalas, Jerry Orbach, Vincent Gardenia and a quick shot of Gene Hackman as a police officer. John Davis Chandler, in his film debut, plays Mad Dog Coll and is always interesting as a demonic character due to a constant crazed look in his eyes. Within a few years I would soon begin to learn the difference between the bland inept hack work of a film like “Mad Dog Coll” and the kind of “B” films that are concise, efficient, visually stunning, providing the pure joyous gratification of pulp cinema like “Underworld U.S.A.”
Filmmakers do not get much more hard hitting than Sam Fuller, his films scream EXTRA! EXTRA! Splashing across the screen just like the tabloid journalism he grew up on and worked for in his youth. “Underworld USA” hits hard right from the beginning as we, and young fourteen year old Tolly Delvin watch his father beaten up and killed by four thugs. Fuller shows every punch and stomp only it is dramatically silhouetted against a back alley wall. Young Tolly swears revenge on the four men who killed his father. “Underworld U.S.A.” is the story of a vengeance seeking loner that can easily be viewed as a predecessor to John Boorman’s “Point Blank” where Lee Marvin wreaks havoc on a corporate looking underworld.
Quickly Fuller brings young Tolly up through reform school and into his first prison term as an adult where he finds the first of the men who killed his father. The man is on his death bed, minutes away from dying. Tolly promises forgiveness to the dying man if he gives up the names of the other three men. Wanting to die with a clear conscience and absolution he tells Tolly the names, but Tolly just looks on letting the man die without forgiving his soul. The men turn out to now be three of the top racket guys in town running gambling, prostitution, drugs and every other crime in town.
Tolly works his way in with the racket boys only to help, really use, the police in bringing down the mobsters by turning them against each other. Like other Fuller characters Tolly is a hard ass (think Sgt. Zack in “The Steel Helmet” or Skip McCoy in “Pickup on South Street”) determined to accomplish what they set out to do no matter what the cost. Tolly uses everyone in his path even Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), a floozy who falls in love with him, convincing her to become a witness against one of the big shots, then under his breath calling her a sucker knowing she will probably get bumped off. Yet Fuller’s hero’s, rather anti-heroes, are not all bad, there is some good in each of them when you dig down deep enough. Tolly realizes in the end that he wants to settle down with Cuddles, even marry her.
“Underworld U.S.A.” was one of the earliest films to reflect the underworld organization run like a corporation with different lines of business, gambling, drugs, prostitution each headed up by a different boss, all now middle aged men. The building where Connors (Robert Emhardt), he is the big boss operates is sleek, ultra modern and ultra cool. He does much of his business by an inside pool. The gangsters all wear white shirts, suits and ties making it all look no different than any major corporate workplace, except for the occasional shooting, and again Fuller here anticipates Boorman’s “Point Blank.” While looking forward, Fuller also pays tribute to the gangster films of the past with its dark alleys, and moody noirish lighting, significantly in the end as we watch Tolly’s stumbling death scene which evokes James Cagney’s melodramatic walk of death in “The Roaring Twenties.”
There is no let up in Fuller’s world, it is ruthless, raw and consistently bleak throughout filled with sweaty close ups and an atmosphere of doom. Even in death, lying there in the alley Tolly’s fist is still clinched, still mad at the world. Tolly’s fist is actually a recurring motif in the film right from the beginning when the young fourteen year old swears revenge for his father’s death for the first time.
The weak link in the film is Cliff Robertson who I found unconvincing as the bitter Tolly. An actor like Lee Marvin (again referencing Point Blank) would have been more stone cold efficient. The acting highlight in the film goes to the impressive Beatrice Kay as Sandy, a role similar to that of Thelma Ritter’s Moe in “Pickup on South Street”, Kay practically steals the show. Also impressive is Richard Rust as Gus, Connor’s shooter. He is a cold SOB completely unemotional, hiding any feelings, if any, behind a pair of sunglasses. There is a chilling scene after Tolly completed his revenge on the four men responsible for his fathers’ death and is now ready to leave the organization where he has been working undercover only to discover it is not that easy. Gus comes to his apartment, where he is packing (to run off with Cuddles), and hands Tolly a pistol telling him the big guy (Connors) has a job and wants Tolly to pull the trigger. Gus tells him matter of factly it’s a good thing; this means Connors had confidence in him. If he does this job well he is in line for some big bonus’… just like corporate employment, he’ll be moving up the ladder of success.