Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The razor’s edge… A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

Anyone still contending that the British silent film industry lacked quality in comparison with its continental cousins, will have had their arguments weakened over recent years with the restoration and re-evaluation of films by Maurice Elvey, Miles Mander and Alfred Hitchcock all of which demonstrated Hollywood finesse mixed with European élan and very distinct British sensibilities.

Then there's Anthony Asquith whose 1928 film Underground enjoyed such a renaissance last year and who has often been compared with Hitchcock upon the basis of that film and A Cottage on Dartmoor produced the following year. The comparisons are apt as I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so uncomfortable watching a silent film as when Joe holds his barber’s razor at the exposed throat of Harry… the world and the watcher hold their breath hoping that that sharpened steel won’t slice through vulnerable skin yet, horribly, shockingly, it does… “was that an ear?!” gasped my wife…well no, but it could have been…

As with the film we need to rewind to find out what happened and how… Cottage starts in the most thrilling of ways as a young prison escape drops down onto the grass and starts running for dear life across the moors. Asquith follows his progress across the barren moorland – it’s a very modern start establishing desperation from the off.

The man sees a cottage in the distance and, narrowing his eyes, runs on ever more determined to reach his goal… The scene shifts to the interior where a young mother Sally (Norah Baring) is caring for her baby, both so vulnerable and alone. The door bursts open: wind, rain and Uno Henning (for it is he) force their way into the warmth… “Joe!” mouths the girl…she knows him and precisely why he’s come.

Asquith’s style is dynamic and builds the level of tension very skilfully. Joe has unfinished business and yet there’s more going on between the two than simple hate…

After this momentous overture, the film pauses and takes us back to explain how these passions came to be roused…

Sally and Joe work in an upmarket barbershop, providing grooming services for well-heeled clients who don’t have the time to shave or file their nails… nowadays this would be a beauty parlour or whatever the term would be for a modern male boutique.

It's always the quiet ones...
Joe has eyes for Sally and is taking his time about making a move. He has tickets for a talkie but drops them in his nervousness allowing one of his colleagues to step in and make the offer to someone else.

A new customer arrives – the far from metrosexual Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) and starts to impress Sally. He owns land in Dartmoor along with a nice cottage; he’s confident and cash-rich: Joe is consumed with envy to top up his sexual frustration.

Harry takes Sally to the talkies and Joe follows – a night of guaranteed misery ahead. The following sequence is precious as Asquith shows us the cinema’s reaction to a new-fangled talkie showing us just what 1929 thought of the revolutionary but potentially faddy new gimmick. The band stop playing after the supporting silent features and break out the beer and sandwiches, old people struggle to hear the dialogue, straining their ear-trumpets screen ward whilst others fall asleep, deprived of the need to concentrate and ground down by stilted, squawky dialogue…

It’s fascinating in what it reveals of contemporary reactions but most of all it shows how knowing and blasé audiences have always been: go on, how many times have you lifted your 3D specs to peak at the time wondering how long you have till closing time? The drama must always come before the effects.

Just like Alfred, Anthony counter-positions this humour with the enfolding unease of the slightly too intense and extra-ordinary Joe…who, as the audiences tries to work out the talkie directs his unwavering gaze towards Sally.

The next time we see this uncomfortable triangle it’s back in the boutique where Joe is shaving Harry whilst Sally is polishing his nails. It’s an awkward moment at the best of times but Joe has a blade that is oh so sharp just centimetres from Harry’s stubbly neck. Harry chats up Sally and injury is piled on agony as Joe spots a large sparkly ring on the beautician’s finger…

Joe can stand no more and in a move that almost breaks the silence he makes the mistake that will alter all of their lives.

“Don’t move! Or I’ll cut his throat!”

Sally falls back in shock and the shop reels in panic as Joe’s thoughts are translated into potentially deadly action. For agonising seconds the situation is poised and then a policeman is called in, there’s a shout and something dreadful happens. Joe is caught between instant remorse and the desire for revenge…

Away to prison and his escape years later… surely he is intent on settling his account with the couple. But it’s not to be that simple as Sally quite shockingly hides him from the police and even trusts him alone in her room with the child… And there’s more as Harry returns and, after his initial shock and Sally’s pleading agrees to help Joe escape.

This is no ordinary love triangle and I won’t spoil the resolution. Needless to say Sally feels more for Joe than he realised and maybe Harry understands that… and the possibility that he wooed her away with his promise of financial security?

Ultimately Joe’s love for Sally is pure and passionate yet he is prevented from acting on it by his own timidity and social pressures. He’s a very modern hero/antihero who loves Sally as much as his own life.

This was the third time I’d watched Cottage and it affected me more than the first two – there’s some disturbing truths smuggled into this one.

The three leads are all excellent with Nora Baring perfectly cast as the girl who might say no and Uno Henning a ball of Teutonic energy, submerged in a mess of confliction.

I watched the BFI DVD which features a specially-written score from Stephen Horne, whose trademark lyricism is entirely in tune with the film’s spirit, helping to bring out the flavour of true love lost amidst the desolate moorland.

“Over the moors, take me to the moors…Oh Dartmoor, so much to answer for…” as Stephen Morrisey might well have sung.


  1. This indeed is a great movie! Have a nice day, Caroline

    1. Thanks Caroline - you too! Best wishes, Paul