The Bad-Good Good-Bad Guy: Dan Duryea in The Underworld Story

Nobody could deliver a line quite like Dan Duryea. My favorite comes in 1949’s Manhandled, when his slimy, gum-chewing private detective brags, “You’re not talking to a cluck Charlie. You’re talking to a guy who knows all the angles.” It wasn’t his wittiest line, nor was it the most hard-boiled or sarcastic, but it said a mouthful about Duryea’s screen persona. After all, the lanky blonde actor made a name for himself in the forties and fifties playing a series of pinstriped hustlers, leering hoods, and—believe it or not—two-fisted misogynists. His sardonic losers always thought they knew the score, but by film’s end were seldom on the right side of the law, if they were even breathing.
Yet in the period following the war, as the hopeful forties gave way to the uncertain and confused fifties, and as the fears of a disillusioned public began to creep into the movies, Duryea’s ability to contrast antisocial behavior with boyish charm, to “know all the angles,” or at least pretend to, made him more valuable than ever in Hollywood. He was uniquely able to actualize the audience’s itch to play those same angles, to grab a handful of that easy money, to flout those shiny post-war promises that most of them had missed out on anyway. And if the right property came along, Duryea might even get to play the good guy.
That property turned out to be 1950’s The Underworld Story, a nearly forgotten and oddly titled film (it has next to nothing to do with gangsters) that, thanks to the Warner Archive, is now widely available. No mere programmer, the United Artists production is one of those rare low-budget pictures that offer a frightening snapshot of its time—of everyday Americans, their optimism sapped, struggling to get by in a new world amidst the tumult of progress. The film is complex without being complicated, though a detailed synopsis would require much more space than I’m allotted here.
In a nutshell, it tells the story of Mike Reese, a venal big city reporter with a chip on his shoulder. Reese’s editors set him up as the fall guy after one of his stories gets a mob stoolie executed on the steps of city hall. Given a pink slip and blacklisted, Reese leaves town and buys into a sleepy suburban paper, but soon finds himself back in the thick of current events. A wealthy socialite has been murdered, and her maid—a black woman—is wrongfully accused of the crime. It just so happens that the murdered woman is the daughter-in-law of Reese’s former publisher, and the killer is the mogul’s spoiled son. Regardless, Reese believes the maid to be guilty, and burns through the majority of the running time playing both ends against the middle in an effort to line his own pockets. But as the story uncoils and the truth finally becomes clear to him, Reese is forced to make a decision between his own rank selfishness and the girl’s life.
Director Cyril Endfield turns in an intelligent and beautifully constructed film. It’s smart, well-paced, and looks gorgeous—Stanley Cortez’s lighting and camera work holds up against that of any iconic film noir. Endfield coaxed great stuff from his entire cast, but Duryea in particular shines—The Underworld Story is one of the best roles of his career. Endfield wrote the screenplay himself, adapting a story by Craig Rice (pseudonym of mystery writer Georgianna Craig) with assistance from Henry Blankfort. The resulting script is foreboding, laconic, and brimming with razor-sharp dialogue. It undertakes a range of issues, including the power of the fourth estate to manipulate public opinion, the capacity of the wealthy to influence the judicial process, the country’s never-ending struggle with racism, and the capriciousness of small town morality.
However, if the project represented a zenith for many of its principals, for a few the nadirs to come were life-changing. The film’s multi-layered criticisms of the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee are so apparent that even the committee members themselves couldn’t have missed them. The Underworld Story goes so far as to give its lone black character, Molly (played by Mary Anderson, a white actress), the wrongly accused and persecuted murder suspect, the same surname as HUAC member John E. Rankin, the racist and bombastic congressman from Mississippi. Thus, it’s no surprise that Endfield’s film (along with his other incendiary 1950 piece, The Sound of Fury) drew the government’s ire: screenwriter Blankfort, actor Howard Da Silva, and Endfield himself would soon join the ranks of those defamed by the blacklist.
Dan Duryea’s task in The Underworld Story was formidable. He had to create one of noir’s more subtle protagonists, a cynical, manipulative, and morbidly opportunistic reporter, his idealism forgotten somewhere among all the column inches and carriage returns (Yes, Mike Reese will undoubtedly bring to mind the character of Chuck Tatum in Billy Wilder’s famous Ace in the Hole [1951], but The Underworld Story reached screens almost a full year earlier). Yet unlike Duryea’s heavies of the forties, this character had to take a sharp turn back towards the light, and bring a skeptical audience along for the ride. The Reese of the first two-thirds of the film is a scoundrel of the first order: a man who will exploit any situation for the sake of a payoff. Duryea’s tremendous range and feel for the part are most evident in two scenes involving Becker, a seedy defense attorney (Roland Winters).
The first—which shows Reese at his worst—happens over a T-bone lunch in the city, as he tries to convince the disinterested mouthpiece to take Molly’s case. Becker deflects him with a stack of fresh headlines that already have her head in a noose. “If she was white she wouldn’t stand a chance against these,” he says. Reese parries with money, offering to split the forty thousand dollars raised by the defense committee fifty-fifty. “She’ll hang,” sighs Becker. Reese’s response, “So she’ll hang,” is so callous that it stops the lawyer cold, a forkful of steak frozen in mid-air. Duryea knows that Reese must eventually turn the corner, but he also realizes that the payoff will be better if the audience harbors some doubt. The lunch scene is the linchpin in his character development—Duryea wants us to hate him.
Yet Reese’s primary function in the film is redemptive, and his moment of transformation— new territory for Duryea—comes during his next encounter with Becker. This scene takes place at the penitentiary, where the two men meet in order to persuade Molly to cop to a reduced charge of manslaughter. She flatly refuses, knowing that a guilty verdict at trial will mean the death penalty. In her anger she compares Reese’s schemes to those of a slave trader, and rises to leave. “Even if you die?!” he shouts in bewilderment, to which she fires back, “All I have left is that I’m innocent. I won’t give it up!” This is the film’s big moment, when the fact of Molly’s innocence finally obliterates Reese’s cynicism.
After she departs with the matron, the camera’s attention returns to him. Duryea underplays it—perfectly. His profile lit starkly against the shadows, he hems and haws, toying with his hat as he asks Becker to accept all of the committee’s money—including his cut—in order to give Molly a proper defense. Becker says the whole wad may not be enough. “How fat can you get?” scoffs Reese, the book on his cynicism slammed shut. Duryea makes the transformation so believable that by film’s end it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role.
What still matters about The Underworld Story and Dan Duryea’s vivid performance is the extent to which the character of Reese had to resonate, at least in a few ways, with post-war movie goers—people who could drum up the cost of a double feature easily enough, but had somehow missed out on the gravy train that everyone was so damn sure of back in 1945. Duryea understood their frustrations, and he becomes a proxy for the audience, fulfilling their desire to act out—to mouth off, to do the wrong thing, to get rich quickly. A self-centered knucklehead who still manages to save the day must have been a welcome, even liberating presence on the screen.
And although Duryea’s career playing the heel was typically thankless, he is now rightly regarded as one of noir’s essential performers. If his jaded screen persona is uninhibited by rules and morality, it’s only so the audience can bask in all that delicious freedom—at least until the end titles and house lights nudged them once again into conformity. ■

The Underworld Story (1950)
Written and Directed by Cy Endfield
Based on a story by Georgianna Craig
Cinematography by Stanley Cortez
Starring Dan Duryea, Gale Storm, Herbert Marshall, and Howard Da Silva
Released Through United Artists
Running time: 91 minutes

I originally wrote this piece for 
Noir City, the quarterly magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, and it is included in the recently released Noir City Annual 2013Do yourself a favor and order a copy from Amazon here. The book is crammed full of the best in noir writing, and the proceeds go to the preservation of the original prints of these great films! 


  1. Great review. This film needs to be better known. Still can't figure why a white actress was cast for the maid.
    Can't remember the name of the actor who played Herbert Marshall's son, but he was very good.
    I agree,great role for Duryea.

    1. Thanks Vienna - The son was played by Gar Moore, and you're right, he's quite good as the spoiled heel in this one! Thanks for the visit!

    2. For what it's worth about the casting of a white actress for the maid, the Spanish DVD release includes a booklet with the following quotes from director Cy Endfield, which I am translating into English here:
      "Hal (Chester)'s support was very important as executives at Monogram Pictures-Allied Artists, who were in charge of distributing the film, did not like the project; it scared them. For example, in the screenplay, Molly Rankin was to be played by a young black woman. There was a universal message in the situation she was living, but it was neutralized because the studio forced us to cast a white actress. As I learned later, the decision was made under pressure from the distributors, who did not want racial themes in the film".

      The booklet also states the film's production budget was about $400,000, near the high end of the B range, and shooting ran from August 13 1949 to the beginning of September 1949, with some retakes done on October 21st 1949.

      I agree this was a great review and am grateful to Mark for casting some light on The Underworld Story, which I'd never heard about before.

    3. That's great additional information - thanks for sharing it!

  2. I suspect there's something more to the what-color-is-Molly angle, as not only is she very obviously a white woman, but every utterance of the word "negro" (and in one case the actual n-word) is dubbed in after the fact. I can't tell what the original word is that everyone says, but it doesn't appear to be "negro." So it seems possible that Molly was turned into an African-American after the fact.

  3. I never noticed this in my viewings of the film, so I looked into it. There's an IMDb thread that gets into the issue, in which one commenter references a Cy Endfield quite from the liner notes of the Spanish DVD release:

    Here are quotes from Cy Enfield published in a booklet included with the Spanish DVD release, by an outfit named Bang Bang Movies:
    "Hal (Chester)'s support was very important as executives at Monogram Pictures-Allied Artists, who were in charge of distributing the film, did not like the project; it scared them. For example, in the screenplay, Molly Rankin was to be played by a young black woman. There was a universal message in the situation she was living, but it was neutralized because the studio forced us to cast a white actress. As I learned later, the decision was made under pressure from the distributors, who did not want racial themes in the film".

    I think Endfield's quote makes it clear that Molly was always supposed to be a black woman, and that possibly the dubs result from an effort to placate the censor's office — either to increase or decrease the use of the N word. In the grand scheme of things I don't think there's any chance that the character's race was changed after the fact. The notion of race of too deeply ingrained in the script, and Endfield & co. were the sort of filmmakers who wouldn't have shied away from any of the risks involved in such a politically and socially charged movie.

    Thanks for raising the point though, it allows for an even closer examination of the film.