—A Confused, but Watchable Film—
Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Lewis Seiler
A doctor (Kay Francis) follows gangsterJoe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart) to a small town in the hope of clearing her name after her husband (John Elderidge) is killed while helping Gurney’s gang.
What I Thought
The key word to this film is potential. There’s a lot of potential to be had here, but unfortunately, King of the Underworld falls short of living up to it.
I’m a fan of Lewis Seiler’s work, and while he doesn’t make perfect films, he’s a capable director when he has the right script. This time though, it seems as if he can’t decide whether he’s making a crime drama, a gangster comedy, or a love story. King of the Underworld feels like a mashup between the taut dramatics of Bogart’s gangster-on-the-run film The Petrified Forest and the goofy shenanigans of Seiler’s own gangster-in-hiding film It All Came True.
Bogart is initially shown as a ruthless murderer, reclining on a couch while he shoots one of his own men one moment, and then later playing for laughs as he doesn’t understand that a doctor is being insulting when she diagnoses him as the “moronic” type.
Then there’s the English writer (James Stephenson) hitchhiking his way across the country, accidently coming across Bogart’s crew after their car breaks down. Later, he falls for Francis after he gets stranded in the small town. Both plot points directly out of The Petrified Forest. Stephenson is solid with what he has to work with, but he’s given no real time to develop his relationship with Francis, and seems to exist for little more than plot advancement.
Despite all of my issues with the tone and script of this film, it’s not unwatchable. The acting is well done, Seiler knows how to frame a shot and keep a story moving, and the plot has a few interesting turns.
I think that the fault for any shortcomings might lie both with Director Seiler’s inability to pick a mood, and the fact that the screenplay was written in part by another multi-time Bogart collaborator, Vincent Sherman. Sherman, as many regular Bogie Film Blog readers know, directed two of Bogart’s more offbeat films – The Return of Doctor X and All Through the Night – both films that I contend were meant as spoofs of the horror and gangster genres respectively.
So was King of the Underworld meant more as a parody? I don’t think so. So much real angst was built into the story between Francis and Bogart that I think the comedic moments were just a bit too overplayed. There’s just enough humor thrown in that it undercuts Bogart’s threat as an antagonist. My guess is that Sherman and Seiler were both still in the infancy of their experimentations with turning the gangster genre on its head, and they put in a little too much silliness to make any of the gravitas truly effective.
Regardless, this one might be a fun double feature with Director Seiler’s own It All Came True, or Vincent Sherman’s underrated gem, All Through the Night.
The Bogart Factor
Bogart could be comedic, dramatic, romantic, threatening, subdued, and whimsical – and while several of those are attempted at various points here, the performance comes off as uneven. In some scenes he’s wonderfully despicable. In others, his comedic timing is flawless. While that kind of varied personality works well in some films (see All Through the Night, High Sierra, The Roaring Twenties), it comes off as fragmented and uneven here.
Again though, the character of Joe Gurney is incredibly interesting and has so much potential. The story of a gangster obsessed with Napoleon, yet too shortsighted to see that they share the same tragic flaws, should lead to a much more satisfying character arc than it does here. Especially when you add in the relationship with the historical author who’s on hand to chronicle it all. But wait, there’s that Francis/Stephenson love story to contend with. And the side story about how the townspeople don’t like Francis. Then there’s the out for justice/revenge plot that keeps disappearing and reappearing, grabbing for our attention. It’s just too many under-developed story fragments in too short of a film.
All of that said, I’d still say this one is probably a must see for diehard Bogart fans as so many of the elements that made him a great ‘bad guy’ are here on display in various moments.
Kay Francis plays Dr. Carol Nelson, the wrongfully accused woman who’s trying to clear her name by chasing down the gangster. Francis is good here despite being lost in the plot details. I would have loved to have seen another 10 minutes added to this 67 minute film that fleshed out her relationship with James Stephenson.
James Stephenson plays Bill Stevens, an English writer hitchhiking across the states. It’s impossible not to compare him to the great Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest, as it’s essentially the exact same character, but Stephenson does well with an incredibly underwritten role. This could have been a film that revolved entirely around a man taken hostage and forced to write a gangster’s biography, as it’s a pretty interesting idea, but we only get a little taste of that plot point here.
Arthur Aylesworth plays Francis’ small town medical practice competition, Dr. Sanders, who’s none too happy to have a new doctor in town as he questions her relationship with Bogart. Aylesworth is fine; the part is small and he’s mainly used to move the plot forward when needed.
John Eldredge plays Niles Nelson, Francis’ husband, who falls in with Bogart at the beginning of the film and ends up losing his life because of it. Again, his role is small and doesn’t quite give us the emotional stakes that we need to fully invest in Francis, but he’s fine in the role.
Then there’s Bogart’s crew, who even though I’m going to lump them together, deserve a mention. Charley Foy, Murray Alper, Joe Devlin, Elliott Sullivan, Alan Davis, John Harmon, and John Ridgely all add a lot of color to the film with their brief scenes and comedic lines. Director Seiler uses them just enough to help the film without overcrowding it.
Classic Bogie Moment
Need someone that can leisurely kill a man from the sofa while reading about Napoleon? Who better than this guy?
The Bottom Line
I think it’s worth a watch, and despite the plot issues, there’s still a lot of good moments in the film. It’s certainly not the worst Bogart film I’ve done for the blog so far!
*UPDATE – You know, it’s been about a week since I watched this one, and I’m already kind of itching to watch it again. Rereading the review, perhaps I was a little harsh on it considering that I’m already looking back fondly. I still stand by my first opinions, but take it all with a grain of salt!