Filmmaking requires obsession and writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller had that by the bucketload, even extending to the ballyhoo called for in promoting a movie, particularly one with a revenge-obsessed protagonist taking on a world of corruption and cruelty by outmatching his opponents in calculation and persistence. “In interviews in preproduction publicity as well as promotional materials, Fuller described Underworld U.S.A. (1961) as an ‘adult’ gangster film, both sensational and realistic,” The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! scribe Lisa Dumbrowski wrote. “By suggesting that the film’s presentation of sex and violence was an authentic depiction of organized crime, Fuller hoped to differentiate his picture from the flood of films about gangsters and the syndicate that hit American screens in the wake of the success of Al Capone (1959). Fuller trumpeted his plans…in a Variety article entitled Frankly, My Next Picture Is All Action, Sex ’n’ Violence, written during the scriptwriting process. He suggested that Underworld U.S.A. would be unique…because it would be set in the contemporary world of organized crime, rather than in the 1920s, and ‘there will not be a single policeman, FBI man or undercover agent in the picture. Nor will there be any scenes in a nightclub, bar or saloon.’ Fuller also stated that the film would contain lots of action and sex, not for their own sake, but because, ‘If you have a story about gangs, you must show how they live and operate and how they use violence to terrify people.’ His aim, he says, is ‘not to resolve anything,’ but merely to awaken people to the insidious presence of gangsterism among seemingly legitimate businesses.”
The fulcrum of this hard-charging exposé is street hoodlum Tolly Devlin (played briefly at age 12 by David Kent, quickly afterward by Cliff Robertson), who witnesses his father’s murder by a trio of hoods and makes avenging it his life’s mission, an archetypal, ruthless Fuller antihero. “I’m not dealing here with beneficent kings, ravishing princesses, or charming princes who are born with castles, jewels, and juicy legacies,” crime reporter/pulp novelist/World War II veteran Fuller explained in his dynamite, posthumously published memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking. “Ever since my characters were born, their lives have been harsh and unfair. They’re going to have to learn to fight to survive. They are anarchists, turned against a system that they feel has betrayed them. That’s why they end up taking the law into their own hands. Tolly goes one step farther, exploiting the system to get his enemies eliminated.” Across 98 lightning-paced minutes, Tolly ensnares one of his targets by enticing a syndicate moll named Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) to testifying against him; he then cuts a deal with a lawman (Larry Gates) to frame the two others as rat; and even though his personal mission is finished, he learns that Cuddles will be the syndicate’s next intended rubout, and earns the confidence of the corporate boss of bosses (Robert Emhardt) to settle that score in a stunning finale.
“Perhaps more than his American contemporaries or any other filmmaker of the classic period, Fuller put a very particular spin on the noir style,” essayists Meredith Brody and Alain Silver observe in Film Noir: The Encyclopedia. “For Underworld U.S.A. Fuller imbues his characters with the same attitude as figures in his war films from The Steel Helmet  to The Big Red One . The conflict between the FBI and the crime syndicate is described in militaristic terms. Like many combatants Tolly Devlin finds himself with a personal agenda to push during a larger conflict. As an orphan who desires revenge he is almost like a refugee. At a certain level his fate is collateral damage. Like one inured to war’s horrors and shut off to any consideration other than personal survival, Tolly is incapable of human response unless it relates to his vindictive goals. His relationship with Cuddles is less about love or sex than about is need for information about his enemies. Once his mission is accomplished, Tolly’s intervention on Cuddles’ behalf is as much or more about guilt than about his tender feelings for her.” True to his preproduction ballyhoo, these characters don’t earn your love but command your fascination. Courtesy of “typical strong Fuller visuals” captured in starkly glistening black-and-white by two-time Academy Award® winner Hal Mohr, “you’ll want to wash your hands after it’s over. Cliff Robertson gives one of his best performances” (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic). Featuring the celebratory featurette Sam Fuller Storyteller and an introduction by Fuller admirer Martin Scorsese, Underworld U.S.A. blasts onto Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray March 20. Preorders open March 7.