Underworld USA (1961): “We got a right to climb out of the sewer and live like other people”

Underworld USA (1961)

Samuel Fuller amazingly does not receive significant attention from most film writers, even though the substance of the passing tangential references to his oeuvre that are made, belie the lack of interest. Andrew Spicer says of Fuller in his book, Film Noir, when reviewing the course of noir post-Touch of Evil (and I dispute the b-film-maker appellation):

“…there was an ‘underground’ culture that retained film noir as a critical cultural form. This underground tradition included… b-film-maker Samuel Fuller with Underworld USA (1961), Shock Corridor (1963) and the Naked Kiss (1964) [that]… attacked the beneficence of American capitalism and the sanctity of the suburban family, keeping alive a habit of irony, scepticism, absurdity and dark existentialism.”

Mark Cousins refers to Fuller only once in his The Story of Film, and then only when introducing 1920s cinema:

The primitive film-making of the early 1910s with its simple shots, raw frontal acting and rapid action, un-moderated by the expectations of the middle classes, was disappearing. Like a humpback whale it went deep underwater. There would be rumours of sightings in 1950s America in melodramas such as Johnny Guitar (1953), and in the films of Samuel Fuller.

Fuller’s pulp melodramas are akin to guerrilla attacks on established certainties.  In Underworld USA, where the rackets are under the spotlight, we have a fast and furious battle where the alienated existential anti-hero Tolly Devlin, driven initially by revenge finds a kind of redemption in a squalid death in the same back alley where the genesis of his dark vengeance is rooted.  The women in his life find a new meaning and purpose in their lives: “We’ve got to finish the job for Tolly – or he died for nothing!”.  Fear is overcome by courage.  In  Fuller’s noirs, it is the influence of strong women that hold the ethical and moral center. Tolly finds what he never knew existed in the b-girl Cuddles – love and giving of one’s self without reservation or guile to another.  In each of the other Fuller noirs reviewed on FilmsNoir.Net, The Crimson Kimono (1959), The Naked Kiss (1964), and Pickup On South Street (1953), women hold the key to redemption.

The cast is superb, with Cliff Robertson’s performance as Tolly as nuanced as it could be, and Dolores Dorn as Cuddles steals the picture, with a simplicity and integrity that is matched by few more successful actresses.  The roller-coaster score by George Duning is a brilliant accompaniment seamlessly flowing from a dramatic crescendo underscoring the adrenalin-fuelled action on the screen to a plaintive but subdued  jazz motif that echoes the pathos that ensues.

Underworld USA (1961)

8 thoughts on “Underworld USA (1961): “We got a right to climb out of the sewer and live like other people””

  1. Marvelous review, Tony, of a film that does not receive as much acclaim these days as it most likely should. One aspect of it I adore is that, at only 90 minutes or so, the film feels astonishingly “epic,” with a richly peopled and realized tragic storyline Fuller brings to great cinematic life.


  2. Thanks and right on Alexander! The 87th minute to be exact – in the scene after Tolly proposes to Cuddles – he is now acting more urgently and for the first time for someone else as well.


  3. Hi! Tony D’Ambra, Alexander and Sam (Whom I am sure will be here later!)
    Tony D’Ambra, I truly “hate” to admit this, but I am not to familiar with director Samuel Fuller’s work on film.(with the exception being of course! his…“Pick Up on South Street” (1953) and “The Naked Kissed.”(1964)
    Below…I have linked an article that features director Samuel Fuller, discussing his films in an interview in the imagesjournal.

    But,if I am not mistaken, I think this is an excerpt that was taken from the book Film Noir 3


    dcd 😉


  4. Great and enthusiastic review of yet another Samuel Fuller film that has achieved a cult following. I have always adored Duning’s score. Your paragraph begin,.ing with “Fuller’s pulp melodramas…..” is a model of descriptive and ultra-perceptive film criticism. I also would like to read more of Spicer as applied to Fuller. I like PICKUP as well, so I will soon read your review on that one through your link.


  5. Hi Dcd. Sorry, for some reason your comment was in the moderation queue, so its appearance and my response is late.

    You should should also check out these other noirs by Fuller: House of Bamboo, Shock Corridor, and The Crimson Kimono.

    Thanks also for the link to the Fuller interview, which I was aware of and should have mentioned in my post – it is certainly very interesting.


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