The Underworld Story (1950)

The latest issue of Cineaste features an extended excerpt on 1950’s powerful The Sound of Fury (I wrote about the recent restoration here), part of a forthcoming biography on director Cy Endfield, whom author Brian Neve claims is the “least well known of the American filmmakers who came to Europe in the early Fifties to circumvent the Hollywood blacklist.” It’s mostly a historical overview of the production, but hopefully it will help convince some enterprising DVD/Blu-ray distributor to take notice.

Tomorrow, Angelenos can see Endfield’s other film from 1950, The Underworld Story, as part of the annual Noir City film festival at the American Cinematheque. While it doesn’t have the same fevered intensity of The Sound of Fury (partly due to its intrusive score and a too tidy ending), it’s a strong companion piece, evocatively and noirishly shot by Stanley Cortez, and equally concerned with the media’s social power and its impact on the justice system.

While mainstream America currently seems to be experiencing a moment of clarity in regards to black injustice (as the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Walter Scott make headlines), The Underworld Story offers a potent and early critique of white privilege: a newspaper’s magnate’s son kills his wife, then confesses to his father, who, fearing a scandal, agrees to cover-up the crime by accusing the black maid. (“It’ll be the word of a nigger against ours!” the murderer schemes.) While the impact is mitigated by the casting of a white actress in the role of the black maid (according to TCM, the producers wished to avoid the label of a “race picture”), the racial/class tensions are continually emphasized throughout the film.

In Cineaste, Neve writes that The Underground Story and The Sound of Fury were “breakthroughs” for Endfield, what the filmmaker called “‘nervous A’ crime pictures” that “gave him hope of more substantial Hollywood opportunities, but the next year, in 1951, with the second wave of investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee underway, he was blacklisted after being ‘named’ by screenwriter Martin Berkeley.” Both of these excellent films deserve greater exposure.

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