Friday, 11 January 2013

Tunnel of love… Underground (1928)

Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi
My first trip to the BFI this year and an unexpectedly rewarding one. Having once read a lukewarm review of Anthony Asquith’s second feature (his first as sole director) I was expecting an interesting film with an excellent orchestral score from Neil Brand. But the film proved to be surprisingly strong and a joy for trainspotter and cinéaste alike.

Anthony Asquith was the son of a British Prime Minister and his high-bearing has seemingly hindered his proper recognition as one of this country’s leading silent film directors. But the restoration of this previously almost un-watchable film, along with A Cottage on Dartmoor, has enabled a thorough re-assessment of his ability.

Waterloo rush hour
Underground is a confidently made film which wears its European influences proudly on its sleeve using expressionist and montage techniques which make the most of the four excellent central performances and some great London locations.

There’s a fight scene that features swift inter-cutting and point of view shots and which continues to echo in one of the characters thoughts as he strokes his wounded chin plotting his revenge… the camera tracks one of the characters as she leaves a power station and speed s up to a run at full tilt and then there’s a bold sequence of the two lovers on an open top bus speeding through fascinating London streets (South of the river I think, from Waterloo to  Kennington?).

Most of all, there’s the Underground itself. The film opens and closes with the same shot of a tube train entering and then leaving a station. Asquith could have chosen any location but he plumped for the stylishly subterranean: the “Tube” …then as now a crowded and unpredictable transport system, full of every aspect of humanity, all in enforced and unpredictable interaction.

Norah Baring and Brian Aherne
The opening sequence is precious and very familiar for those, like myself, who undertake this most egalitarian of commutes … Asquith relishes the scene as passengers squeeze on  board  and vie for seats. We focus on one particular seemingly uncouth character, Bert (Cyril McLaglen) who sneaks into a seat left by one more chivalrous traveler for a woman. But Bert changes tone when an attractive young woman Nell (Elissa Landi) sits next to him and tries to impress her but she’s too sharp for him and throws his hat over at some schoolboys.

Bert’s not to be deterred though and follows Nell as she tries to exit at the Waterloo Station escalators… here she meets a entirely more attractive proposition, Underground Porter Bill (Brian Aherne) who helps her on her way and then delays Bert by tripping him.

The story is run on co-incidence and the constant reconnection of the component characters is often achieved through simple chance… it matters not and adds a gentle sense of dislocation to an otherwise realistic narrative.

So it is that Bert somehow tracks Nell down to the store where she works and tries to romance her. He ends up with a bouquet but little else as it is clear she has another already firmly  in mind.

Cyril McLaglen and Brian Aherne
At the pub Bert drowns his sorrows and when Bill arrives there’s a scrap in which the porter emerges victorious and the electrician has his lights punched out. But Bert’s not one to forgive and forget. He persuades Kate (Norah Baring), a poor seamstress who rooms in his digs to help him gain revenge. For some reason the girls has a crush on Bert and having previously discarded her, he promises marriage if she’ll accuse Bill of assault in front of Nell and the swaying passengers of the Bakerloo Line.

The plan seemingly works and Bill faces ruin if found guilty. But Nell doesn’t believe it and, following Kate’s visit to her store to buy adornments for her impending nuptials, Nell puts two and two together and sets off to clear Bill…

Brian Aherne helps Norah Baring
The drama ramps up considerably but I won’t say more: it’s well worth a night out. Needless to say there’s a chase scene which would give many a modern adventure a run for its money: relentless and suspenseful, “visceral” as Neil Brand said.

The leads are all outstanding, with only McLaglen bringing a little ham; he still makes a convincing “bad sort” and is just the wrong side of “likeable rogue”.  Elissa Landi is a very striking actress with a protean smile: you wonder how she’s going to finish off some of her expressions… happiness that twists imperceptibly to a frown. She's very in the moment and, from the sound of it, quite under-used in subsequent Hollywood films. Oh and if you thought Asquith was posh, Elissa was a descendant of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria (yes, that one!).

Norah Baring and Brian Aherne
Brian Aherne makes a very ‘andsome man in a uniform and an upstanding leading man: you really want him and Nell to work out. But it’s Norah Baring who has to handle the most tortuous transitions, alone in her room, distraught and unable to channel her romantic devastation except through the displacement activity of aligning her flower pots. A nuanced performance that near rips your heart out.

The post-prandial panel discussion was also very lively with the man from the London Tansport Museum revealing the back story to the Tube’s golden age and pointing out the odd “blooper” such as  the use of Northern Line carriages on the Bakerloo Line as well as some scenes shot in Waterloo and City Line carriages…he was sure there was a logical explanation.

Bryony Dixon highlighted Asquith’s experience of international film including a period in Germany at UFA and a working holiday with Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. Underground is most notable for Asquith’s decision to focus on the lives of ordinary folk breaking with the English obsession with period drama and the lives of our social betters. Here was a story for everyman.

The Rivals
Neil Brand was still flowing along to his musical response to the film. After his success with Blackmail he had sweated hard over “second album syndrome” with this emotionally unpredictable film. He completely re-worked his first half hour once he’d become attuned to the story’s core. The archivists and restorers play their vital roles but only the musician’s get to actually work alongside the directors.

His approach is to score the music along with the individual moments in the narrative and let the story arc take its course. This is particularly important in a film like Underground in which events unfold in unpredictable ways. Here his music had an energy and urgency which perfectly complemented the pace of Asquith’s film. Lovely stuff – even if it was slightly out of sync due to a BFI technical glitch.

Elissa Landi and Cyril McLaglen
There's an interesting video on the BFI website discussing the film and the story of the restoration. And, if you go to the Barbican site there's a podcast with Neil Brand talking about his score.

Underground now begins national release in the UK and will get a DVD release in the summer – catch it if you can to see a British silent film director every bit the equal of Hitchcock.

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