If it weren’t for Alloy Orchestra and the pianists at the Harvard Film Archive, it’s doubtful Boston would ever get to see silents like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Josef von Sternberg’s directorial debut, the 1927 Underworld, which is considered the first gangster film. You could, of course, show them with a pre-recorded score, but it’s the live music that fills a space as big as the Somerville Theatre, where, under the auspices of World Music/CRASHarts, the Alloy trio — Roger Miller on Kurzweil synthesizer, Ken Winokur on clarinet and percussion, and Terry Donahue on accordion, musical saw, and “junk” — accompanied Paramount Pictures’ new print last Saturday night.
It was the usual eclectic Somerville Theatre crowd, tub of popcorn in one hand and stemmed (!) wine glass in the other. (It must have been plastic, but it sure looked like crystal.) The orchestral instruments were arrayed stage left; the “junk” included a dinner bell, a cowbell, horseshoes, coiled springs, gongs, chimes, and a piece of sheet steel.
For all that it was an immediate success and an inspiration for The Public Enemy and Scarface, Sternberg’s film is an odd affair. He took it over from the original director, Arthur Rossen, who’d been fired, and in his autobiography he identified his leading lady as “the wife of one of the studio executives.” Gangster “Bull” Weed (George Bancroft) is being challenged by his rival “Buck” Mulligan (Fred Kohler), and on top of that, his moll, “Feathers” McCoy (Evelyn Brent), is falling for his protégé, former lawyer and drunkard “Rolls Royce” Wensel (Clive Brook). When “Buck” starts pawing “Feathers” and “Bull” shoots him, it’s up to “Feathers” and “Rolls Royce” to put aside their own feelings and save “Bull” from the noose. It’s a movie on the cusp of the sound era, Bancroft’s exaggerated laughter coexisting uneasily with Brook’s earnestness.
Synthesizer and clarinet and accordion dominated the Alloy score, which, loungy and Philip Glassy by turns, served up volleys of driving ostinato along with colorful touches like brushed cymbals for the cats. The performance lacked the naive clarity of a piano or an actual orchestra, but there was no reserve in the audience’s response. Next up for the Alloy: a new Paramount print of Sternberg’s second film, The Last Command.