The films of Sam Fuller are tough – It’s imprinted on their DNA. Fuller wasn’t just a Hollywood pseudo-tough guy poseur. Having worked in his teens as a crime reporter, and having worked a pulp writer, and as an infantryman in WWII, he earned his bona fides as a hardscrabble guy. That background is why his films have that hard edge to them that never seems anything but genuine. My favorite Fuller films are film like that, films that have that gruff, unsentimental vibe to them. I’m thinking of Pickup on South Street, and of Steel Helmet, with its crusty, cigar-chomping sergeant played by Gene Evans (a Fuller avatar if there ever was one!). But most of all I think of my favorite Fuller film, the little-seen Underworld USA from 1961.
Underworld belongs in the tradition of man-going-after-bad-guys-who- done-him-wrong gangster films, but I think the reason I think it stands apart from most of them, is the way it treats its “hero” Tully Devlin (Cliff Robertson). This is a guy who is as sentimental as a set of brass knuckles - a true anti-hero.
When a teenaged Tully (David Kent) witnesses his father’s murder, he’s not a babe in the woods. He is already someone who seems destined for jail as a thief. We’ve already seen him lift a wallet off a drunk. The father is a street hustler also, and that’s probably why he found himself in that dark alley at the wrong time. When the cops come to investigate the crime, Tully doesn’t co-operate, even though he knows one of the killers. In his mind, he’s already planning his revenge.
The film shows Tully getting in more trouble, and going to jail. This development is beyond inevitable – it’s intentional. Tully throws a rock through a window when he knows there’s a copy right around the corner.
It’s while he is in prison that he learns that one of the murderers is in the same jail, and is near death. Tully arranges to get transferred to the prison clinic in order to get close to the dying man. When he finally confronts the killer, it’s a bit unsettling. The old man is sick and very close to the end, and when Tully tells him who he is, the killer begs for forgiveness. Tully coldly informs him that he will forgive him - If he gives the names of the other three killers. I find myself conflicted in this scene. Although I want the killers to pay for their crime, it’s easy to feel pity for the dying man, because he seeks absolution for his crime. Tully’s forgiveness, however, isn’t genuine – It’s just a step in the process. He’s the one who comes across as the monster.
Tully now finds himself out of jail, and now knows the names of the men he wants. Problem is that all three are powerful crime lords, and getting to them will be next to impossible. During a late-night spying session at the home of one of the killers, he catches a break. A hired killer (a cool and cruel Richard Rust) brings in a female drug mule with the intention of killing her. Tully steps in to save her, and steals some of the dope, which he uses to give him an in with the mob.
I’m always fascinated by the relationship between Tully and the Rust character Gus. Gus is basically assigned to train Tully, and seems to give off the vibe of being a pretty good guy. There is a scene where Gus talks how the mob uses charity work as a front for their activities. He describes how the mob boss opens up his gigantic pool, and how he, Gus, actually acted as a lifeguard on one occasion, stating “I liked that.”
I think this little section is included because there is a later scene where Gus runs down a little girl in cold blood. It’s a harrowing scene of cruelty, and it is given even more impact because it’s done by this smiling ex lifeguard. Despite his demeanor, Gus is capable of anything.
Although it is stretching it a bit to call it a romance, there is a relationship that develops between Tully and the drug girl, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn). He saves her, and brings her home to have his surrogate mother (Beatrice Kay) look after her, but he isn’t getting too close. When she makes an offhand remark about their possibly getting married, his response cuts to the bone: “You must be on the needle”. It’s willfully hurtful, and it demonstrates finally that Tully is deeply damaged. The “mother” character Sandy is the conscience in this film. She’s the one who tells him that he is only killing himself with his thirst for revenge, and that he doesn’t seem to notice this woman who cares for him.
Tully settles into a relationship with a District Attorney (Larry Gates), and uses this to start to destroy the syndicate from within. The DA feeds him false information, and he presents it back to the mob bosses, who start knocking each other off. There’s a striking scene where Tully goes to confront one of the bosses just before Gus is scheduled to kill him. Tully beats the shit out of the older man, while telling about how he watched his father get brutalized years before. It’s instructive to see how Fuller shoots this scene. We see the crook groaning in pain on the floor, while the ostensible “good guy’ hovers over him and stalks him as he tries to crawl away. Again, Tully is portrayed as the heavy here.
With all the killers finally dead, Tully goes back to Cuddles and starts talking about marriage. This change in him is striking, and it points up that his quest for the death of these men has robbed him of much of his humanity. With the quest completed, it’s like a malignancy has been cut out of him. The DA tries to tell him that there is still work to do – The big boss is still out there, but Tully isn’t interested. Ah, but it’s never that simple, is it? Tully is now expected to help Gus wipe out the rest of the family of the little girl, and one other person, as well – Cuddles.
Underworld USA is a noir, and as such, touches on a lot of the themes that were central to Noir: The damaged hero, the misguided obsession, the central character finding himself trapped in a situation he should have walked away from. What elevates Underworld for me is the way that Fuller doesn’t let himself be swayed by the temptation to sand off any of the edges from his characters. He treats Tully the way he treats the bad guys; capable of cruelty and evil. The world portrayed here isn’t pretty, and neither are its people.
Underworld USA is not available on DVD, but can be streamed off Amazon.
My 2006 commentary on Allan Baron’s Blast of Silence, a cinematic cousin of Underworld USA