Underworld is just about the best underworld picture that has come along. Melodrama it is, but melodrama that is human, that keeps its actors people while unraveling a plot developed through the interplay of human temperaments, passions, feelings. Cinematically it is modern, in the stride of the art. Imaginatively it is frequently of the first rank, a finely visualized selection of touches that reveal not only the fabric of the characters but as well the predicament of their lives, intensified as they are by the decent instincts that urge them upward despite the dragging impulses that are the result of their conditioning in society's darker strata…. [It] brings a director, Josef Von Sternberg, very definitely into his own as among the real creators for the screen, thus fulfilling a prophesy more than hinted by The Salvation Hunters….
[Underworld] is that rare thing on the screen, a film wrought on the iron of truth, on a framework of understanding visualized in telling, conclusive movement that is the target reached by all good art, and seldom reached, at least so unerringly, in motion pictures. And for its moral values …, they are coursing in the very veins of the story picture; fortunately, neither skin deep nor washed on with a smirk. It is the story picture of a man coming from darkness into light, surrendering at the last gasp the kingdom of his world to gain the kingdom of himself. As the film travels, we watch the coarse clay refining in a fierce burning. It is a parable of the primitive child-man attaining the civilized state, facing the moral problem, perceiving it, finally redeeming himself and the others of his tribe. The purely sentimental is untouched by the film. "Bull" Weed is set down for what he is, and his personal story is ended as it inevitably must end—at the hands of himself as much as at the hands of the law. (p. 10)
The pattern of action, cinematically concentrated at point after point, blots out such minor weaknesses as occur, even the old stuff such as the police chase in automobiles. When it weaves around the figure of "Bull", it is often superb…. Underworld opens with beautiful economy and swiftness, plays with its camera-work around each situation until it is complete, and brings them to a focus in a perfect ending.
Underworld is a film of integrity on the part of director, scenario writer, actors and cameraman, done with back-bone, which is to say, strength and grit. Best of all, at least for those looking for cinema growth on our native screen, it is a film made in America, with an actor and a director who need take off their hats to none. (p. 11)
"Exceptional Photoplays: 'Underworld'," in National Board of Review Magazine (copyright, 1927), Vol. II, No. 8, August, 1927, pp. 10-11.