Monday Movie: Underworld U.S.A., by David Bax

Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Underworld U.S.A. originally ran as part of our TCM Classic Film Festival 2021 coverage.

Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. really stresses the world part of the title, building from its opening scene–in which a young kid takes the watch and wallet off a drunk who’s blacked out in the alley before then getting bloodied and robbed himself by an even younger kid–a whole shared environment of sadistic violence and men and women both who would cut your throat if it gave them a half a leg up. That kid from the beginning, Tolly, sees this first hand when he watches his father beaten to death by his own criminal associates right in front of his eyes and dedicates his life to getting vengeance. Once he’s grown up (and played by Cliff Robertson) and sent to prison, he gets his chance when he meets the ringleader, whose deathbed confession gives him the dirt he needs on the remaining killers. Once released, he sets out to undo them, one by one. Underworld U.S.A is, by turns, grim (the murder of a child comes into play), goofy (a doctor refers to pills as “joy powder”), ironic (a dying man knocks over a trashcan that says “Keep Your City Clean” and then bleeds out among the refuse under a sign encouraging citizens to give blood) and, it should be said, possibly a little homophobic (one of Tolly’s targets may be coded as gay, depending on which definition of the word “punk” you think the movie’s going by). The whole movie feels dangerous, itself a product of the world it’s created.

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