Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Underneath, Steven Soderbergh, USA 1995

Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is just another instance where I seem to be the only one defending a film the majority of viewers found 'muddled', 'boring', or downright 'bad'.

However, I beg to differ!

Another adaptation of Don Tracy's novel Criss Cross rather than a remake of Robert Siodmak's film of the same name, Soderbergh dusted off Tracy's story and relocated it from downtown Los Angeles to rural Texas. Why The Underneath is a cut above most crime films is mainly due to Soderbergh's direction. Through clever, stylish - some may call it pretentious - use of the camera and by using three different, constantly intersecting time-levels, Soderbergh conjures up an atmosphere of doom and trepidation. More importantly, though, he manages to keep that atmosphere at the same pitch throughout the film. While The Underneath is more of a back-against-the-seat than an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it nevertheless grips the viewer from the very first, when we see Peter Gallagher staring cheerlessly and inertly out of the van that is about to carry him to his downfall.

Some have called the several time-levels Soderbergh uses in The Underneath 'confusing'. However, apart from the fact that they add considerably to the suspense, these intersecting - or indeed crisscrossing - time-levels are also a metaphor, a reflection, of the film's title and, of course, its narrative. One of the things that didn't work for me in Siodmak's film from 1949 is the casting. While none of the principal actors - Burt Lancaster, Yvonne de Carlo, and Dan Duryea - can be faulted, the fact that we've become so accustomed to them over the years simply fails to provoke any feelings of fear or apprehension, let alone doubt as to how the story will eventually end. By contrast, Peter Gallagher, in my opinion one of America's most underestimated actors, and especially William Fichtner, are actors where anything is possible and whose faces are like blank pages that can turn into a claustrophobic nightmare in a snap.

Lastly, The Underneath functioned as a sort of training, or preparation, for Soderbergh in what was arguably to become one of his greatest films, if not his greatest: Out of Sight (USA 1998). Soderbergh is one of those few directors always willing to go new ways, try themselves out, and explore new territory. The Underneath was Soderbergh's early foray into the crime film, a genre which he has since perfected and redefined.