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Proto-Gangster Classic Finally Coming to DVD

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on May 6, 2010 3:45PM

photo via The Auteurs
The Newberry Library has countless fascinating objects within their collections, but one of the coolest is an Oscar. Yes, an actual Academy Award, given to Ben Hecht for Best Original Story for Underworld (1927) at the first Academy Awards. It ended up at the Newberry with the rest of the Ben Hecht Papers, bequeathed to the library by his widow Rose. The collection was in a state of disarray at the time it was acquired; in fact there's a memorable photo that shows Hecht's Oscar being used as a doorstop!

Underworld itself is a legendary film that's been talked about and referred to more often than seen (including by us.) That's a shame, because it's arguably the very first modern gangster movie. It contains most of the foundational elements of the genre, including a powerful mob boss besieged by a ruthless rival, with a moll caught between them; a wild party sequence which devolves into an orgy of alcohol and decadence; corrupt law enforcement; and a climactic gun battle.

But its phantom-like existence is about to change in a big way. Word has leaked that Criterion is due to release a DVD of the movie this August. It will be part of a box set alongside several other silents by director Josef von Sternberg. (Official details aren't available yet, but The Last Command and The Docks of New York might also be included.) We can't wait to check out the touchstone for later flicks like Scarface, The Public Enemy, and Angels With Dirty Faces.