It’s expressive silent filmmaking at its best — Anthony Asquith vies with Alfred Hitchcock for most creative direction in silent-era England. Elissa Landi and Brian Aherne meet in the Tube but become entangled in a scheme of the jealous Cyril McLaglen. Restored just a few years back after being unavailable for generations, this is a beauty: the BFI gives it a full orchestral orchestra score, plus a second avant-garde ‘contextual audio’ track.
Kino Classics / BFI
1928 / B&W / 1:33 silent ap. / 93 min. / Street Date April 23, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Elissa Landi, Brian Aherne, Cyril McLaglen, Norah Baring.
Cinematography: Stanley Rodwell
Art Direction: Ian Campbell-Gray
Written and Directed by Anthony Asquith
If one was asked to come up with the name of a ‘tame’ English director, the answer a while back might have been Anthony Asquith, a privileged toff whose post-grad lark was to spend a year in Hollywood, learning all about moviemaking from Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Asquith’s sound pictures are famous, but not necessarily for his direction: Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest. Nobody seems to remember his fine work in The Browning Version, although a look at his later films Guns of Darkness, The V.I.P.’s and The Yellow Rolls-Royce were probably enough to keep him out of discussions of great filmmaking.
What a revelation it is, then, to see Asquith’s silent picture A Cottage on Dartmoor, a thriller that for cinematic cleverness out-does most everything Alfred Hitchcock was doing at the time. Remember Hitchcock’s The Ring, a carnival story told almost completely in visual gags worthy of cartoon panels? Dartmoor is even more concentrated, dispensing visual jokes like candy. That was Asquith’s fourth and last silent picture, and now two more are available on Blu-ray. 1928’s Shooting Stars is a show-biz story co-directed by Asquith, but the same year’s Underground has to rank as a major cinematic debut. As accomplished as the ‘city life’ classics The Crowd (King Vidor) and Lonesome (Paul Fejos), Underground shows silent filmmaking at its best.
A romance that becomes a thriller, it is set almost entirely in public spaces, especially the underground ‘tube’ subways that were the prime form of working-class transportation in the 1920s. Even though some of what we see are studio sets, the filmic record of 1920s London seen here is priceless. The first modern underground system opened in the 1880s; we’re told that those long escalators were an American import, around 1910. Modern films seem insistent on distorting everything about the past. The recent Gary Oldman film The Darkest Hour sports a phenomenally insulting scene in which Winston Churchill takes a ride on the underground to gauge the mindset of his Brit subjects as to the war. Bad writing aside, the idea that Churchill had been on the underground in thirty years, or even knew how it worked, dishonestly erases the sharply defined class distinctions.
Much like The Crowd or Lonesome, Asquith’s Underground is set firmly in working-class life. The dapper hero Bill (Brian Aherne) has what we’d call a menial job as a porter in the Underground, assisting the public, watching for safety and polishing the turnstyles. Lovely Nell (Elissa Landi) is a salesgirl in a large department store, working a counter apparently dedicated to fancy silk scarves. Commuting on public transport means that she must put up with various men trying to get her attention, to sit next to her, etc. She handles this well but can’t help returning the glance of Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a cheerful but slightly rougher working-man who tries to play peek-a-boo with her on a bus. Bill and Bert end up in an uneven competition for Nell, even though she favors the more naturally self-assured Bill.
The show is less stylized than A Cottage on Dartmoor yet confects its fair share of visually poetic moments. Bill and Nell ‘meet cute’ on the long escalator when he tries to return her gloves. She’s going down and he’s going up and they both back-pedal for a few seconds in the middle, tentatively staying together despited the effort of the modern world’s machinery to separate them. Georges Franju would later transform this gag into filmic poetry in his short film La première nuit. A boy takes to the Paris Métro in search of his dream girl, who appears to him in another train riding alongside his on parallel tracks.
As with the best of silent directors, Asquith builds his drama out of the actors’ behaviors, and most importantly, their eyes. Bill is bright and optimistic, Nell sweet and demure, and Bert too cocksure of himself. The second burst of cinematic action happens in a pub, when Bill fights Bert over a slight to Nell’s virtue. A flurry of cuts of swinging fists has quite an impact — certainly more than in an Abel Gance picture, where blasts of ‘Quisinart’ flutter cuts intrude at too-regular intervals. One shock cut of the knockout punch later reappears as superimposed ‘memory blips,’ cluing us into the fact that Bert has fixated on the humiliation, a motivation for his revenge.
Nell is clearly attracted to both men. Even if she favors Bill, Bert gets enough encouragement to press forward. Bert’s bad-boy style has him do things like accost Nell as she works, which creates attention with the department-store floorwalker.
Adoring Bert from the rooming-house room next door is Kate, a lowly seamstress (Norah Baring). She throws herself at him at every turn, and he strings her along while obviously reserving his thoughts for Nell. A second-act complication sees Bert callously using Kate to compromise Bill with an accusation of sexual assault. Although Bill is put on leave and humbled, Bert only puts a tragedy into motion: Kate discovers what he’s done to her.
The big final act takes place partly at Bert’s day-job workplace, an enormous power station. Some shots make it look as big as constructions in Metropolis. Kate ends up breaking into a main switching room, havoc results and the finale is an extended chase.
The chase is brisk, but not nearly as interesting as director Asquith’s views of normal London life in the crowds. Bill & Nell’s first date involves a ride atop a double decker bus on a sunny day. Artful scenes of ‘teeming masses’ of commuters are linked with clean, steady dissolves. I know that optical printers existed at this time but fine-grain duping film stock did not. We once assumed that beautiful dissolve and multiple exposure work in silent films was all done ‘in-camera’ but I’m no longer so sure after seeing pictures like Underground. The timing of the cuts and dissolves seems too precise.
Elsewhere we’re impressed by Asquith’s fluid camera, which stays in close on character scenes. He never simply records action. The camera always takes an expressive point of view, often with designed angles that feature bold diagonals, as in a German movie of the day. A lapel flower figures in a beautiful piece of ‘dramatic objectification,’ where inanimate objects come to represent the tensions between characters. Alfred Hitchcock must have thought of Asquith as a talented colleague, or perhaps a dangerous competitor.
It just so happens that Underground’s four leading players retain connections that modern film fans might appreciate. The interesting Norah Baring would star two years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! She starred twice more for Asquith, in both A Cottage on Dartmoor and his other silent The Runaway Princess. Cyril McLaglen was Victor McLaglen’s younger brother (by 13 years), better looking but not quite as expressive. He shows up in small parts in a number of John Ford films, but one has to be a Ford stock company-watcher to spot him. He starred in a silent version of The Lost Patrol, which John Ford remade with Cyril’s brother in the same part.
Brian Aherne is the most familiar of the four, having a long Hollywood career as handsome but not that memorable consorts for Joan Crawford, etc. He’s excellent opposite Bette Davis as Maximillian of Mexico in Juarez. The most impressive player is Elissa Landi, who most of us know from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, as the innocent Christian maiden threatened by Roman vice and corruption, including both a lesbian seducer and hungry lions. The role requires Landi to play pious and pained at all times. Just four years before in Underground she’s delightfully natural and easy to identify with — no stylized manners or dated theatrical gestures. Her deportment reminds me a little bit of Liv Tyler, the way she holds her lips in a tentative possible-pout. (see top, large image above).
The Kino Classics / BFI Blu-ray of Underground is an impressive disc that we’re glad to have in HD — a DVD wouldn’t show it off at its best. Pub text reminds us that one reason Anthony Asquith’s reputation has suffered has been the unavailability of his creative silent output. We’re also reminded that English critics often had little praise for their own film heritage — the ‘quota quickie’ inferiority complex, the flight of top talent to Hollywood, etc..
I’ve seen a watchable copy of Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor but there is now apparently a much better restoration from 2006. Underground has been AWOL for the longest time because the BFI couldn’t find prints or film elements that would yield a screenable copy. We’re told that this restoration was possible because of a new French print with quality footage for some sequences. That, plus advanced digital techniques that make possible the renovation-cleanup of film elements with major scratches and damage. This release looks exceedingly good, very clean throughout. The first two minutes are marred by a strange strobing quality, something I’ve seen corrected in other digital restorations. The pulsing, fluctuating quality returns at times, and some scenes look a little soft, but never in a way that distracts. Remember that this is a rescue; an unprintable feature has been reborn.
The restoration was impressive enough to merit the composing and recording of a full orchestral score by Neil Brand. It’s quite grand, as they say. An alternate score is provided by Chris Watson. Or should I say alternative score, as it’s made up almost entirely of sounds: train station bells, atmospheres, semi-abstract audio. A distant bagpipe mixes with traffic noise for one scene
A ten-minute featurette sees BFI folk discussing the film and the lengths taken to restore it.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Two full music scores: Neil Brand & Chris Watson; featurette Restoring Underground (nine min.) 2009.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson