Judge Barrie Maxwell digs into a classic film about love, betrayal, and the Gestapo.
"It makes a man a little dizzy."
By 1941, Vincent Sherman was starting to make a name for himself at Warner Bros. as an up-and-coming director. He had already had success with The Return of Dr. X, Saturday's Children, The Man Who Talked Too Much, and Trial and Error, pictures that he had done while working in Warner's B-unit (headed by producer Bryan Foy). Foy then approached Sherman with a screenplay entitled "Underground." The script had kicked around Warner for a while, ostensibly as an intended major A-production. But that project was abandoned, and the script was assigned to Foy's unit to see if a modestly priced picture could be made out of it, thus recouping some of Warner's investment to date. Sherman was assigned to direct; he was excited about the project's potential.
Underground tells the story of an underground resistance movement in Nazi Germany, whose chief activity is the operation of a secret radio station that broadcasts news about Nazi oppression. The head of the movement, and chief broadcaster, is Eric Franken. Franken's brother Kurt, who is in the German army, is badly wounded in battle and returns home to recuperate. He falls for Sylvia Helmuth, another member of the underground movement and a close friend of Eric's. Sylvia falls under the suspicion of the Gestapo, and Kurt, not believing her to be part of the underground, agrees to keep an eye on her for the Gestapo in hopes of clearing her name. As a result he eventually learns that she is indeed involved in the resistance; however, he is so in love with her that he hopes to divert suspicion from her by turning in the rest of the underground movement. An opportunity presents itself when he learns about a new broadcast location for the movement's radio, but Kurt is unaware that by providing this information to the Gestapo, he will be sealing his brother Eric's fate.
Underground was not the first film overtly critical of the Nazi movement to be made by a major American film studio before the country's entry into the Second World War. It was preceded by at least two excellent films—1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy, also from Warners and starring Edward G. Robinson, and 1940's The Mortal Storm, from MGM and starring James Stewart. Unfortunately neither film was a major success, suggesting that the American public's appetite for such material was not great in the immediate prewar years. Warner Bros. was one of the leaders in advocating anti-Nazi films, however, so it was not surprising that they would mount another film with similar sympathies, even if it was only a B-picture this time.
In Vincent Sherman's hands, the film became a powerful anti-Nazi statement that belies its use of second-rank players and B-level production values. The story is told with urgency and sincerity, is tightly edited, and is filmed in a noir-like style to convey the clandestine nature of the protagonists' activities. Admittedly a few of the portrayals of the Gestapo members verge on caricature (particularly Martin Kosleck as the Gestapo chief investigator, Col. Heller), but that's a minor quibble and should be viewed in the context of the times. Far better to recognize the excellence of Philip Dorn's work as Eric (Dorn was expressly borrowed from MGM to play the part at Sherman's request) and a surprisingly effective performance by mild-mannered Jeffrey Lynn as his brother Kurt. Sherman peopled the film with numerous German refugee actors who were then working in Hollywood; this also added greatly to the film's authentic feel. Kaaren Verne, who fell into this category, gives an appealing, unaffected performance as the female lead, Sylvia.
When the film was completed, Warner Bros. quickly recognized that it had more than a standard B-picture on its hands, and quickly elevated it to A-level distribution status. With an excellent critical reception, the film ended up generating over $2 million in business, which translated into a nice profit—since the production cost had been only $300,000. The film was, however, a source of conflict between director Sherman and producer Foy. Foy apparently resented the positive response the film was generating for Sherman, and a confrontation between the two resulted in a permanent breakup. That didn't turn out to be a problem for Sherman, however—Jack Warner soon elevated him to directing A-pictures, meaning that Sherman never had to deal with Foy again.
Roan Group (now part of Troma) has been known for its releases of some rather good discs of classic material, particularly public domain titles. Recently, we've been fortunate to have them release several of the Warner Bros. B-films of the late 1930s/early 1940s (e.g., a double bill of They Made Me a Criminal and Lady Gangster), although the disc transfers are not up to the standards set by their best previous efforts. That trend continues with Underground. The film is correctly presented full frame, but the image transfer has numerous scratches and speckles, and is rather schizophrenic, as it tends to vary from crisp sequences to soft ones with poor shadow detail. The mono sound is also inconsistent, with noticeable hiss at times. Of more concern is an audio track that is at times slightly out-of-sync with the video. The overall result is, however, workable, since the film is so good that one soon is immersed to the point of forgetting about the presentation's shortcomings. Still, Underground deserves better. Unfortunately I can't imagine there's a very high likelihood of anyone else putting out a better version. Supplements on the disc include two parts of a good interview with 98-year-old Vincent Sherman (conducted by Troma's Lloyd Kaufman and Sherman's son Eric) and, for some reason, a trailer for Samuel Fuller's Shark! with Burt Reynolds.
Underground is a film well worth watching and, despite the less-than-sterling disc from Roan, a DVD I recommend.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Two Interviews with Director Vincent Sherman
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