King of the Underworld (1939) Review

Director: Lewis Seiler

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 67 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

King of the Underworld was the first movie where Humphrey Bogart got his name placed over the title in the opening credits. This drama is about how husband-wife doctor duo Niles Nelson (John Eldredge) and Carole Nelson (Kay Francis) and failed writer Bill Stevens (James Stephenson) find themselves ensnared in the world of crime by gangster Joe Gurney (Humphrey Bogart). It’s not remembered among Bogie’s best work, but it’s still a competent, little film.

According to the Trivia section of this picture’s IMDb page, director Lewis Seiler’s heart wasn’t really in this one, which might explain a slightly sloppy moment or two. Still, the results are quite good, with the cinematography occasionally having a shadowy, proto-noirish look. It should also be mentioned that the feature is actually kind of funny at times. It’s a charming flick.

On the action front, there’s not too much to write home about. There are a couple of instances when characters let a Thompson submachine gun rip, but this is far more subdued than, say, Scarface (1932) or ‘G’ Men (1935). An action film, this is not. That being said, the ending puts a pretty interesting and surprisingly satisfying twist on the usual gangland shootout finale trope.

Running a minuscule sixty-seven minutes, King of the Underworld is a film that’s difficult to regret watching. The succinct plot is always in motion and Bogart’s fine performance anchors the finished product. I really enjoy watching retro mobster movies, and this feature will scratch any itch for other aficionados of those types of works.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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