The only way Underworld whispers "gangster film" under its baited breath is from the input of screenwriter Ben Hecht, who wanted to make a film based on his experiences as a Chicago crime beat reporter. And to be sure, there are instances in Underworld that directly link it to 1930s gangster movies, specifically Scarface, also written by Hecht, particularly the neon sign spelling out "The City Is Yours" to a mob chief and the brutal, shooting gallery gun battle at the film's climax. Also in evidence are Hecht's sarcastic Front Page style one-liners -- for example, one gangster tells another to attend a gangster get-together by saying, "You've got to show. Everybody with a police record will be there." This was von Sternberg's second feature and at the outset, Hecht had the most clout, but as the film progressed, von Sternberg emerged victorious.
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How these three men interrelate is the main story line, while the hijinks of the kids stands as a continuous backdrop to the action. Sometimes it's fierce, but just as often it's plodding and uninspiring. The underlying social commentary -- how children can turn good or bad depending on how they are raised, a controversial idea in the 1930s -- doesn't get much of a chance to shine, which may be a problem of too many stars, too many precocious child actors, and not enough legroom for all of them to stretch.
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The BBC drama starring Aidan Turner returns to BBC One on September 4th.