The exact definition for 'film noir' is a tad vague. While some elements of noir are easy to agree upon (they are gangster/crime films and tend to be gritty and realistic), others are not. To me, a noir film MUST be made in black & white. As to my interpretation of noir, you would have to say that after the early to mid-1960s, noir disappeared in America because films were then all made in color--though they continued to make a few noir films in France--using black & white a bit longer. In light of this, UNDERWORLD USA would have to be among the last American noir movies--and probably the last great one. Now the fact that I loved this film surprised me--though I knew that Sam Fuller could make some dandy films. What made me assume the worst was that I just couldn't imagine Cliff Robertson in the lead in such a dark and gritty style of film. Boy was I wrong--as he proved to be more than equal to the task.
The film begins with Tolly Devlin a teenager and well on his way to becoming a career criminal. However, this is interrupted by the beating death of his father by several unknown assailants. The only one young Tolly saw was a guy who was soon sent to prison for life--and it would be tough for Tolly to cross-examine him to find out who did it--after all, he wanted revenge. In an odd move, Tolly appeared to work hard to be caught so he, too, could make it to state prison to talk to this killer. Years pass, but finally he's able to talk to the guy--who is on his deathbed. He learns the other men's identities and comes up with an amazingly intricate plot to get them--intricate because now, a decade later, these men are very, very powerful gangsters. Just approaching them and killing them would be very difficult.
I don't want to talk about all the ins and outs of the plan, but in the process several unexpected things occur. First, he actually is able to help the crime commission by taking out these gang members and works closely with them. It is NOT because he has any fondness for law & order but they are a means to his end...period. In addition, he helps a young lady who is caught up in the mob and begins, for the first time, to actually care about someone. Slowly, you see humanity appearing within Tolly and by the end of the film, he is, for the first time, thinking of something other than himself or revenge. As for the ending, it is dandy--making the film well worth seeing.
There really isn't anything much to complain about here. The story is original and exciting, the acting is very good and the film appears to have been very well made--though it does lack some of the interesting camera work some noir films employed--not a problem, but I do like the dark shadows and smoke used in some examples of this genre. There is an interesting mistake, however, in the final climactic scene. Tolly falls into a swimming pool and only minutes later, as he's running from the gang headquarters, he's inexplicably dry!! And, for that matter, the death scene at the end is a bit overdone--but not in a way that particularly harms the overall film.
If you care, I have seen just about every film Sam Fuller made and I would say that this and STEEL HELMET are probably his very best. He had an amazing knack for making lower budget films that still delivered lots of action and suspense--a lot like super-high quality B-movies.