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The Underworld Story

Posted by martinteller on November 19, 2012

“Did you ever rob graves, Mr. Reese?”
“No future in it.”

Unscrupulous reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea) will do anything for a buck.  When he runs a story that he was told to withhold, a key witness against gangster Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva) gets gunned down.  Now Reese is out of a job, and no paper in the city wants anything to do with him.  He hits up Durham for $5000 — as gratitude for the “favor” — and buys into a partnership with a small suburban paper.  The publisher Cathy Harris (Gale Storm) and printer Parkie (Harry Shannon) quickly figure out what kind of a man he is, but he manages to stick around when a big story breaks.  A woman has been murdered in their community: the daughter-in-law of newspaper kingpin E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall).  Her husband — Stanton’s son Clark (Gar Moore) — confesses to his father that he did it, and the two cook up allegations about the African-American maid Molly (Mary Anderson).  Reese doesn’t care who did it, he just sees dollar signs in the story.  He trumps up a “defense fund” for Molly, planning to pocket half the proceeds for himself.  Then something strange happens: he starts to care.  But now Stanton has rallied the town’s bigwigs against him, and it’s a battle of the press for public opinion.

I have to say first of all that this film has stunning photography.  And no wonder… the cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, shot three of the best-looking films of all time: Night of the Hunter, The Magnificent Ambersons and Secret Beyond the Door.  Gorgeous shadows mingling with radiant pools of light, it’s an absolute beauty.

And everything else about it is pretty good, too.  Duryea makes a great antihero: weaselly enough that you believe in him as an opportunistic snake, warm enough that you believe in him as a crusader for truth, and talented enough that you can buy the transition between the two.  It’s basically Duryea’s show, but there isn’t a bad performance in the rest of the cast.  Gale Storm, as usual, doesn’t do much for me, but I liked that they didn’t play up the romantic angle too much.  And it’s unfortunate that they cast a white actress to play a black part… it’s not really a film about racism, but it is an element of the story (and Moore does drop an n-bomb).

This isn’t noir in the sense one usually thinks of it… there’s not many bullets fired or punches thrown, no femme fatale, not much in the way of gangsters.  But it’s along the lines of Sweet Smell of Success, extremely cynical about the power of the press, how people manipulate it and use it to manipulate others.  In the midst of HUAC activity, it’s also a commentary on witch hunts… and it’s worth noting that director Cy Endfield, screenwriter Henry Blankfort and actor Da Silva would all eventually get blacklisted.

Some of the scoring isn’t that hot, but the dialogue is really crisp and has a musicality of its own.  One does feel that in the end, the film could have more bite, but it tells an interesting story with some nuance, has a stellar performance by Duryea, and knockout visuals.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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