There are a bunch of large-scale British pictures of the late silent era, like E.A. Dupont's Moulin Rouge and Piccadilly, and they all have dazzling surfaces but don't quite captivate as melodrama. It can seem as if the popular conception that British silent cinema consisted of Hitchcock standing alone and portly in a cultural wasteland is kind of true. But Anthony Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), which channels German expressionist lighting, composition and intensity, is an honorable exception: it's actually more Germanic than any of Hitchcock's films (even including The Pleasure Garden, which he shot in Germany).
Underground (1928), which was Asquith's very first feature, is not quite as good as that, but I'd wanted to see it for ages and was very glad I did: it's available, beautifully restored, from the BFI.
The movie wears its Germanic aspects more lightly than Cottage, with some giddy-making angles and sharp chiaroscuro associated with the character played by Norah Baring (from Cottage) who's desperately in love with Cyril McLaglan (more handsome brother of the more famous Victor).
Unfortunately, McLaglan is himself in love with the delightful Elissa Landi, and his love is more of the psychopathic stalker variety. And Landi is sweetly smitten with mild-mannered escalator attendant Brian Aherne.
And oh yes, much of the action centers around the London Underground, not a political movement but a subway system, still sparkling, clean and ultra-modern in this film. Nowadays the movie that captures its essence more faithfully is the seventies cannibal horror Death Line (AKA Raw Meat), which would be recommended as the dark half of a double bill with this one. The crumbling, dripping catacombs of that film have little in common with the gleaming tunnels and platforms in Asquith's movie, which recall the dazzling futurity of Metropolis.
Aherne and Landi, both en route to Hollywood stardom, make an engaging couple: the writing leaves them a little bland, but in melodramatic terms that's OK as it leaves them almost defenseless before the wily McLaglan, who inveigles the smitten Baring into making a false accusation of, I believe you call it mashing, against the thoroughly decent Aherne. Trusting Landi investigates, and the whole thing ends in a dramatic chase from power station to subway. As with early Hitchcock, the escalation from low-key suspense to spectacular action climax is a little bumpy, but it's exciting to see Aherne suddenly transformed into a kind of prototype Jason Bourne.
Bracketing this running battle are many instances of observational comedy on the tube trains, actually more Hitchcockian in their whimsy than the darker, more violent sequences.
And there's a dazzling instance of shadowplay, where the camera tilts from the shadows of Aherne and Landi on the subway wall to the couple chatting. Cut to the shadows, leaning in for a kiss. Back to the real-life couple, doing no such thing, but looking as if they'd like to. A subjective effect! Landi leaves, after shaking Aherne's hand chastely. Tilt from Aherne, solo, looking after her, up to the wall, where now we see the twin figures locked in a passionate embrace. Back to Aherne, staring dreamily into space, obviously imaging that clinch. And McLaglan bursts into frame, staring hard at the oblivious attendant, apparently able to perceive both the moonstruck Aherne and his imaginary shadow-snog.
Asquith's case is an odd one. In A Cottage on Dartmoor he includes a lengthy parody of talking pictures, showing a cinema audience delighted by silents suddenly bored by a talkie, but then he became a rather dull talking picture director himself. His film of The Importance of Being Earnest is good fun, but it's very much a filmed play, as is everything he made after talkies came in: he seems to have had no ambition to carry on the marvelous expressivity of his images from the silent period. Perhaps he was having too much fun, masked and carrying a wasp in a jar, at upper-class sex parties. But nothing was ever proved.
McLaglan's character is the perhaps most interesting in the movie: the cloth-capped proletarian threat, contrasted with Aherne's uniformed hero. All the characters are working class, with Landi a shopgirl and Baring a seamstress (a frequent euphemism, but we see her actually at work), but McLaglan is a little more working class than the others. He's also, however, twisted and psychotic, and that's pretty unusual for a British film, where the common man was usually rated too simple to have neuroses. Asquith, the son of a liberal prime minister, shows an unusual fascination for, indeed an unusual belief in, the complex inner life of the working man. It may be that he had more interaction with the working class than most of his peers, but then we'd be getting into his rumored private life again...
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.