Classic Movies

From the DVR: The Underworld Story (1950)

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This past Saturday evening (January 25) saw the premiere of Try and Get Me! (1950; a.k.a. The Sound of Fury) on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ as an offering on their Noir Alley showcase, hosted by the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Mueller.  TCM ran Get Me at midnight as part of a mini-marathon honoring director Cyril “Cy” Endfield, which also featured Endfield’s The Underworld Story (1950) at 2am and 1957’s Hell Drivers closing the curtain at 4. 
 
posterAs the title to this blog post has no doubt made you aware, this is not a review of Try and Get Me!—because I’ve already plowed that parcel of ground over at the ClassicFlix site.  I DVR’d both it and The Underworld Story with the expressed purpose of running it for mi madre some night so I wouldn’t have to sit through Lake Placid (1999) again.  (Don’t ask me why she’s a fan of this campy horror flick.  I can’t figure it out either.)  But because TCM reruns the Noir Alley movies on following Sunday mornings we were able to watch Get Me thanks to my father, who relinquished his death-like grip on MSNBC because he had some paperwork to attend to (my mother thought Get Me top notch, a reaction I was not expecting); this allowed me to put on Underworld later that same evening. 
 
I’d seen the movie before (I even ponied up for a copy of the Warner Archive release) but every now and then I like to revisit movies to see if they continue to hold up and I was really surprised that The Underworld Story was as good—if not better—than I remembered.  Glenn Erickson, the “DVD Savant” at DVDTalk, is right on the money when he observes that Underworld “plays like the work of angry men.”  “Its main focus is the misuse of the power of the press,” Erickson posits, “with side excursions into racism, class arrogance and the influence of organized crime.”  

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Dan Duryea as reporter Mike Reese in The Underworld Story (1950)

When underworld figure Turk Myers is gunned down outside the steps of a courthouse, the racketeering case that District Attorney Ralph Munsey (Michael O’Shea) has been building against mobster Carl Durham (Howard Da Silva) goes south because he’s lost Myers as a witness.  Munsey places the blame squarely on the shoulders of newspaper reporter Mike Reese (Dan Duryea), who had warned his boss that running the scoop was risky.  The paper needs a fall guy, so Reese is given his pink slip and from that moment on is persona au gratin where journalism jobs are concerned.  (Reese’s blacklisting is a rather wry story element in a movie that would later see several folks out of work, notably director Endfield and actor Da Silva.) 
 
Reese does what any ink-stained wretch worth his salt would do: he starts throwing back copious amounts of liquid lubrication in the local watering hole and a fellow reporter suggests he thumb through the trade papers for employment opportunities.  (The barfly notes that The Charleston Gazette is up for sale for a cool quarter million—something that gave me a hearty chortle because it was my family’s paper of cherce growing up…and also because the locale in Underworld appears to be faintly New England-ish, so the reference is a little out of that jurisdiction.)  Mike spots an ad asking for an investor in a small community paper, The Lakewood Gazette, and the price tag is only $7,500.  Reese hits Durham up for the money but is only able to put the bite on the gangland leader for $5,000.  

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Mike Reese (Duryea) sweet-talks himself into a half-partnership on The Lakewood Gazette, run by George “Parky” Parker (Harry Shannon) and Cathy Harris (Gale Storm).

Mike may not have the full asking price but he’s got swagger and a lot of fast-talking charm; he’s able to convince Gazette owner Cathy Harris (Gale Storm) to take him on as a partner, and what seals the deal for Cathy is how Mike immediately takes charge of a news scoop that fortuitously takes place minutes after his arrival.  Diane Stanton, wife of wealthy Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), has been found murdered, allowing Reese to capitalize on selling the details of the story to a big city news wire service after a furious bidding war.  Cathy and Mike even manage to scoop the newspaper chain owned by Clark’s father, E.J. Stanton (Herbert Marshall)…but E.J. is sitting on an even bigger story: he knows who the murderer is, because son Clark has confessed to him that he croaked Diane.  

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Herbert Marshall as E.J. Stanton

Yet suspicion soon falls on Molly Rankin (Mary Anderson), Diane’s maid, as the culprit when the police learn that Molly tried to pawn Mrs. Stanton’s jewelry.  Molly reveals to Mike and Cathy that Diane asked her to sell the gems and while Cathy believes in Molly’s innocence (the two of them have been lifelong friends) Mike sees an opportunity to cash in on the maid’s notoriety by persuading her to turn herself in to D.A. Munsey.  Reese’s motivation is the $25,000 reward being offered by the Stantons…but his scheming is sandbagged when Munsey reveals during the press conference that since Molly surrendered on her own accord Mike is getting bupkis. 
 
Reese’s financial wheeling-and-dealing threatens the “partnership” between he and Cathy until he gets the idea to back Molly’s innocence through the newspaper after several of Lakewood’s citizens vocalize their belief that Molly’s not guilty as well.  Like Arthur Kennedy’s skeevy lawyer in Trial (1955), Mike establishes a “defense fund” for Molly with the hidden purpose of taking Lakewood’s citizenry to the cleaners while he uses the sensationalism of the case as a stepping stone to bigger things.  (He’s also out to settle a score with Munsey.)  Public opinion soon turns against Molly (thanks to negative coverage in the far-reaching Stanton papers), and Reese develops a twinge of conscience after Molly refuses to plead guilty for a lighter sentence.  He sets out to prove her innocence.  

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Storm and Duryea

On actor Dan Duryea His Czarness wrote (in his seminal reference book Dark City): “When Duryea played straight the strange music in his voice tended to go flat.  When his riff was sharp and cunning, he exuded what one admirer described as ‘animal magnetism’.”  Dan was one of the silver screen’s most delectable bastards…but watching him play the good guy was never as much fun.  That’s why The Underworld Story provides Duryea with one of his finest film showcases: his Mike Reese is similar to Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole (1951), thinking (in the words of Erickson) “of little beyond the next fast buck.”  Reese may be a louse (asked by Cathy if he’s ever robbed graves he retorts: “No future in it”), but his conversion from heel to hero by movie’s end is most convincing…and fittingly, he’s got to take one hell of a beating from Durham and his goons before Munsey and his men arrive cavalry-like to save him.    

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Michael O’Shea, Storm, and Duryea at the conclusion of The Underworld Story

Durham re-enters the picture when Clark Stanton asks him to put Reese out of commission—I guess that’s why the movie is called The Underworld Story even though the gangster element really takes a back seat to the Molly Rankin saga.  Molly is an African-American woman passing for white, so Underworld is a little subversive for its time with its plot development that Stanton has no compunction about Molly taking the rap because she’s “a Negro.”  One of the working titles of this movie was The Whipped, which I’ll freely admit is a much better title; Endfield and fellow blacklistee Henry Blankfort adapted Craig Rice’s novel The Big Story for the screenplay, which Rice purportedly wrote based on her personal experiences as a journalist.  

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Gale Storm takes some home movies of her brood on the set of The Underworld Story

If you’re only familiar with Gale Storm from her TV stints on My Little Margie and The Gale Storm Show: Oh Susanna! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by her performance here (it’s definitely one of the better films I’ve watched her in…though admittedly most of them have either been “B” musicals or B-Westerns), and there’s also good work from Da Silva (his gangster is not without good cheer despite being a despicable thug), Marshall, Anderson, and Harry Shannon as “Parky,” the Lakewood Gazette’s loyal pressman.  Future “Skipper” Alan Hale, Jr. is one of Da Silva’s henchmen, Stephen Dunne plays the editor of a Stanton daily, and character great Edward Van Sloan (Dracula, Frankenstein) has his cinematic swan song in an uncredited bit as the minister at Diane’s funeral. 

6 thoughts on “From the DVR: The Underworld Story (1950)

  1. Nice writeup! I have an old review of it somewhere that I should dust up and publish. The Underworld Story is a favorite of mine. The film’s title is an odd one, no underworld and barely any gangsters feature in the story, but this is the only fault I can find with the movie.

    It’s a great role for Duryea. If Reese can get an exclusive story out of the misfortune of others and make a quick buck in the bargain, the hell with everything else. He’s his typical slithery bastard for about three quarters of the movie until he comes around in the end. He makes his change of heart completely believable. It’s Molly’s quiet dignity that transforms him.

    Time for a rewatch.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. “The paper needs a fall guy, so Reese is given his pink slip and from that moment on is persona au gratin where journalism jobs are concerned.”

        Don’tcha mean “persona non gratia”, Ivan? Au gratin makes me think of Golden Grain Rice-a-Roni for some reason…..

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t heard of The Underworld Story prior to my first viewing a few years ago. It was on TCM around supper time on a gloomy, dreary day. I made the rest of the grumps in the family sit in front of the TV. “We’re going to watch Dan Duryea and if that doesn’t cheer us up, there’s no hope for us.” We’re still together.

    PS: I have a very favourite Dan Duryea as a good guy movie. Kathy O’ means Christmas to me.

    PPS: Lake Placid !?!

    Like

    1. We were trying to remember movies in which Duryea doesn’t play a louse and someone mentioned KATHY O’ (I don’t think I’ve ever watched it). I don’t know why I always think of SAHARA after the fact, seeing that it’s a Bogart film and all.

      P.S.: Yes, LAKE PLACID. I’m telling you, I was left on the doorstep in a basket as an infink.

      Like

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