Sunday, December 25, 2011

Two careers cross in 'King of the Underworld'

King of the Underworld (1939)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Kay Francis, James Stephenson, Jessie Busley, John Eldridge, and Raymond Brown
Director: Lewis Seiler
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When her husband (Eldridge) is killed in a raid on a gangster hide-out and is revealed to have been their physician of choice, Dr. Carole Nelson (Francis) has her reputation tarnished and career destroyed when no one believes she was ignorant of his activities. When she discovers the gang is hiding in a small town, she relocates there as well, in the hopes of finding the means to clear her name. When Carole discovers the megalomaniac gang-leader (Bogart) has kidnapped writer Bill Forrest (Stephenson) to force him to write his biography, she knows that more is now at stake than just her reputation and livelihood--the gangster is not going to let Bill live once the book is finished.

When "King of the Underworld" was made, Humphrey Bogart's star was on the rise, and Kay Francis' was quickly falling and burning out. Some sources indicate that this film was cast as it was because Warner Bros. executives were trying to force her to abandon her contract because of the non-glamorous nature of the part, and because she was given second billing to an actor with a far lesser stature than she had obtained. But, like the character she portrays in this movie, and like the strong women she had built her career on playing during the 1930s, Francis kept plugging on against the odds and in defiance of those who would bring her down. Despite the best efforts of studio suits, Francis still comes across as every bit the movie star that she was.

Part of the reason that Francis comes off looking so great in this movie is that Bogart's character, Joe Gurney. is a stereotypical, brutish and socipathic gangland thug with the mildly interesting character quirk of being obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte, and considers himself the French general's modern-day intellectual counterpart. Of course, Joe doesn't really understand half of what Napoleon did during his lifetime and some houseplants are smarter than him, but what he lacks in intelligence he more than makes up for in animal cunning and brutality. Joe's gang isn't much smarter or classier than he; at least "Scarface" had George Raft playing a gangster possessing an air of class and intelligence... Joe Gurney's gang seems is a collection of dim bulbs with Joe merely being the smartest and toughest guy in a collection of idiots. He is so dumb that I kept expecting one of the other gang members to shoot him and take over when it became apparent their hideout had been compromised.

As a launching pad for stardom, this was not the greatest of choices... but, for Bogart, "High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" were just around the corner, and with them finally came the great parts he'd been begging for.

Francis, on the other hand, portrays a character whose only flaw is that she is a little too trusting of the people close to her. She is brilliant, sensitive, and possessed with an unwavering sense of personal honor... and a sharp mind married with a drive to succeed with her honor intact that the likes of Joe Gurney wished he had. These traits not only let her outsmart petty "community leaders" in the little town she relocates to, but also outsmart Joe and gang in a clever, if mildly far-fetched way.

The best part of this movie, in fact, is the interaction between Joe and Carole. These are very tense and suspenseful scenes, because both Bogart and Francis were great acting talents and they both conveyed their characters so strongly that viewers have a sense throughout those scenes that this could all end very badly for Carole at any moment.

Francis' Carole is so stubborn that her drive to clear her name won't be stopped. Bogart's Joe is such a vicious monster that when he is being gregarious it feels forced and that he would rather kill someone than walk across a room. Each scene they have together feels like the unstoppable force is about to collide with the unmovable object with all the disaster that would follow such an event.

These two great screen talents are what makes this movie worth seeing, as it emerges as proof of the fact that great actors can transcend the material they are working with. It features Francis' last great role at Warner Bros. even though it was intended to be a bad part, and Bogart takes a bad part and makes it spectacular.

This review is part of Forever Classic's Humphrey Bogart Blogathon (Bogarthon?). Click here to see links to other entries.


  1. I saw this several weeks ago when I was catching up on some Bogie movies off of TCM. I'd never run across it before. Bogie is really different in this one, his classic persona still developing. I was losing interest in this one until the woman's husband got shot and that swerve kept me on board until the end. It's a bit of a whopper, but it entertained. The blind shootout is actually almost tense.

    Rip Off

  2. That's the point where the movie hooked me, too. Until then, I was thinking "Well... I've seen this exact story before", but that plot-twist shook me out of the Jaded Reviewer Mode. :)