Monday, 28 January 2013

Underground (1928)

The bfi restoration of Anthony Asquith’s 1928 film Underground was first shown at the 2009 London Film Festival, but it has now finally made it into a handful of cinemas across the country ahead of its dvd release in the summer. It was the first film on which he received a sole directing credit, having previously been assistant director on a picture called Shooting Stars in 1926. It’s an astonishingly assured debut, fully assimilating new techniques from the continent and handling what could easily have been an overheated melodrama with sensitivity and a keen observation of character. A prefatory title card informs us that this is to be a story about ‘workaday people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Bert and Kate’. Fortunately, that snootily patronising ‘just’ is not reflected in the ensuing film. The rituals, rhythms and places of work are central to the film, and from our perspective some 8 decades on give a fascinating glimpse of the differences from (and similarities to) our own lives. Nell works in a department store, Bill as a station attendant on the underground; Bert as a power station operative, and Kate as a home-based seamstress. The story revolves around their intertwining love stories, and the passions which they arouse. Nell becomes the focus for Bill and Bert’s amatory advances, whilst Kate pines after Bert (who lives downstairs from her), who firmly rebuffs her advances (telling her that it’s all over) until it becomes convenient for him to use her. We can tell that Bert is a bad egg from the start. When we first see him, he nabs a seat which a soldier and a sailor are vying to give up for a young woman standing in the aisle. When they remonstrate with him, he merely gives them a cock-eyed ‘what are you going to do about it’ grin from beneath his broad flat cap. When we first meet Bill, on the other hand, he is standing at the bottom of an escalator helping bewildered travellers find their bearings in the underground tunnels. He even rescues a puppy which has toboganned down the central slope and reunites it with its owner.

Nell (Elissa Landi) on the elevator
The tone of the film veers between light comedy, romance, psychological drama and action thriller. The transition between these wildly disparate moods is sometimes a little awkward, but never to the extent of unbalancing the film as a whole. The actors playing the four central characters are all great. Elissa Landi’s Nell seems very modern in her gestures and looks, a very 20s character who remains relatively unfazed by the attentions she receives from the two men. Her reactions, looks and gestures are naturalistic and unaffected, effectively giving the sense of an ordinary young woman of the period. Norah Baring’s Kate is a tragic female character in a more traditionally Victorian mould, working in overworked and underpaid conditions little changed from nineteenth century and wasting her affection on a love which is clearly one-sided (and which, in true Dickensian Nancy style, is wasted on a brute). She is more exaggerated in her emotional gestures, which seem to derive from an earlier, DW Griffith era of theatrical film acting. The scene in which she realises that she has been used by Bert and begins to mentally unravel is very affecting, however, partly due to its underplayed tone. We watch her circling the room, making small adjustments to the sparse ornaments and objects which dot its bare spaces, turning a plant pot around and picking at the earth and leaves. It seems like the prelude to a more tempestuous collapse (as indeed proves to be the case). Her nervous mental energy (and the overwhelming volume of work she has to get through to earn a crust) is also ably conveyed in the ferocity with which she turns the wheel of her sewing machine.

Bill and Bert are contrasted in their manner of courting. Bert takes a direct approach, effectively stalking Nell, confronting her in her workplace and later following her along the riverfront and forcefully pushing her up against an alley wall. She pushes him away and requests he lower the barrier of his arm leaning against the bricks. When he refuses, she simply shrugs and ducks under. His rough and cocky ‘you know you want it’ approach definitively fails to impress, and suggests that Bert is really only after one thing. Bill on the other hand takes her on an omnibus ride out to a more idyllic and pastoral riverside setting on the outskirts of the city (out Twickenham way?), where they enjoy a picnic reclining beneath a solid oak tree. A ragged but winsome urchin creeping up on them with an eye on their sandwiches adds a mild element of tension, and may serve as a reminder of Bert with his flat cap. But he ends up sharing their meal and bringing the two closer together in a natural and unforced manner (as opposed to Bert’s unsubtle approach), his temporary presence hinting at a long-lasting relationship and a future family.

Bill (Brian Aherne) and Nell in the emergency stairwell
Brian Aherne, as Bill, mixes a winning hesitancy and boy next door charm and courtesy with hints of a more calculating and worldly side. This latter aspect sometimes uses the mask of innocence to its own advantage. It is he, after all, who first thwarts Bert’s pursuit of Nell by tripping him up at the foot of the escalator and then delaying him further by dusting him down with sarcastically fussy solicitude. Cyril McLaglen’s Bert is fairly open and transparent in his rough charms. There’s little guile to his character, and his casual and throwaway attitude to romance is clearly well known to the regulars at his locals, who exchange knowing glances at his mooning over his latest ‘girlfriend’. It is only after a confrontation in the significantly male environment of the pub (the only woman is the stolidly indifferent barmaid, who remains rooted to the counter throughout) that his wounded pride drives him to take reprisals against his rival, which swiftly escalate beyond his control. He does so by using Bill’s appearance of bland innocence against him, with the intention of revealing the more violent aspect of the man who tripped him up on the escalator and laid him out in the pub which lies beneath. The antagonism from this point on exists more between the two men, with the women reduced to secondary, reactive roles. They could be seen in terms of a Jekyll and Hyde split, expressions of conflicting sides of the male persona. As such, the final epic chase becomes a struggle between these normally co-existent halves which have gone to war against each other to assert dominance.

Power Underground - Edward McKnight Kauffer
If it’s taken on a literal level, the highly charged and thrillingly shot chase sequence is a coda which is jarringly out of register with the rest of the film (although very exciting in its own right). It takes us to the heights of the power station roof before descending once more to the depths of the underground in a way which connects both locales. The underground is a place apart from the regular world above, a warren of the unconscious in which normally suppressed feelings are given a tentative flicker of expression. The power station is seen to be the source of the underground’s power, and is also the symbolic representation of powerful human passions, the generating heart where they connect with full, blinding force. A similar connection was made linking machine and muscle, overground and underground in Edward McKnight Kauffer’s striking futurist-inspired Power Underground poster produced for the Underground in 1931 (one of those featured in the set of Royal Mail stamps issued to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first London underground train). The final chase feels like it could have been lifted from one of Hitchcock’s wrong man suspense thrillers. Perhaps it’s not so inappropriate, given the underlying theme of doubles and split personae which runs throughout Hitch’s oeuvre, and the tendency of his heroes to be a little bland or complacent, his antagonists often more characterful, sympathetic or even attractive (albeit psychopathic).

Chelsea Blue - Lots Road Power Station
The film is a delight for transport enthusiasts, as well as for anyone interested in the history of London. There is a good deal of location shooting which gives fascinating glimpses into the inter-war city. Bill and Nell’s trip on the top of the omnibus harks back to the ‘phantom rides’ of early cinema, in which the camera would be set up at the front of a tram or train to film the passing parade. Here, the focus is obviously on our two romantic leads, the camera facing backwards, but we do get to see the buildings receding on either side. The conductor sells them a ticket from a wooden rack of pre-prepared specimens (producing an audibly excited exclamation from one bus enthusiast in the audience). This was long before the introduction (in 1953, if you must know) of the ‘Gibson’ paper ticket-roll machines which were suspended from the conductor’s neck, with their mini-hurdy gurdy style dispensing handles and adjustable printing blocks in convenient reach at the front. Nell’s walk by the riverside during which she is accosted by Bert also offers a background picture of the working Thames, barges drifting past and the chimneys of factories and power stations belching smog-creating smoke into the London skies. We also get a panoramic view of the Thames in West London from the sloping rooftop of the Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea Creek during the climactic chase sequence, a plume of steam marking the progress of a train across the Chelsea Harbour bridge far below. Lots Road provided the electricity for the Metropolitan Line, the first underground line to be opened (in 1963, 150 years ago). It remained independent from the other lines, which were amalgamated within the dominant Underground Group, until the unification of all London transport systems within the London Passenger Transport Board, a public corporation set up in March 1933 (and better known as plain old London Transport). The underground scenes centre particularly around the escalators whose distinctive uplighting ‘torches’ seem to place them at Picadilly Circus. The station had been redesigned by London Underground architect Charles Holden and was only officially opened on the 10th December 1928, which might explain the confusion of so many of the passengers Bill has to help out. Holden would go on to design many of the distinctively moderne stations on the northern end of the Picadilly line (Arnos Grove and Southgate being particularly good examples), as well as the fabulous art deco headquarters of London Underground at 55 Broadway, which boasts sculptural reliefs by Eric Gill, Henry Moore and Jacob Epstein on its external façade. The Picadilly escalators are seen in all their glory, with their wooden treads, bronze fittings and triumphal rows of evenly spaced uplit torches.

Picadilly escalators
There’s some lovely observational comedy concerning underground etiquette (or its breaching) in the opening scenes. Acquaintances spot one another across a crowded carriage and lean over to conduct a conversation through an archway of arms. Bert reads his neighbour’s paper, much to his irritation (made visible in the traditional manner by shaking and readjusting the broadsheet), and it is pointedly thrust into his hands in roughly folded form as the other chap departs the carriage. A portly gentleman takes up a position in the aisle, holding on to the hanging knobs on either side, and Nell is hypnotised by the gentle sway of his belly as the carriage rocks in its forward rush. A policewoman (or is she a conductor?) standing stiff and erect beneath her brimmed upturned bowl of a hat repels all eye contact with her basilisk glare, sending one meek chap shrinking behind his paper after his offer of a seat is batted aside as a base insult. With the war and the female workforce which it engendered now a decade or so in the past, the idea of women in uniformed positions of authority was evidently once more a cue for wry amusement, and the use of the matronly ‘old dragon’ stereotype. She does crack a sisterly smile when Nell thwarts Bert’s advances by chucking his beloved cap away, though. There is much tactical manoeuvring involving the offering of seats and the acceptance or refusal of the offer. This tends to be a less than selfless attempt on the part of gentlemen to move nearer to an attractive young woman, or a counter move on the woman’s part to move further away. What with Bill’s use of the escalator as a means both to trip up his rival and to make initial contact with Nell, the crowded carriages and corridors of the tube seem to be portrayed as a natural theatre for flirtation and the possibility of turning a chance encounter into something more lasting.

Underground etiquette
The regimentation of the escalator into slow and fast lanes (standing on the left, striding up on the right) has yet to become ingrained, and ascent and descent is something of a hustling free for all. Notices instructing passengers which foot they should step off with are in place at the bottom, and there is an amusing scene in which a foot soldier lugging two bulging kitbags is sent into a panic of confusion by this simple advice. This is largely due to the looming presence of his fearsomely moustached sergeant major behind him, who observes his stumbling disembarkation with an air of exasperated familiarity. The walls are absolutely plastered with advertisements, most of them a great deal smaller than those found today, and filled with text rather than enticing passers-by with the kind of arresting images which we have become so inured to today. It gives the corridors and station walls a rather cluttered look. There is no sign of the posters designed for the Underground Group, and later London Transport, which reached a consistently high standard of artistic distinction under the guidance of publicity director Frank Pick. These were displayed in especially reserved spaces outside the stations and in the entrance halls and lobbies. The more generalised advertising we see here was restricted to corridors and station platforms. Pick would also ensure that there would be a more standardised aesthetic approach to the visual side of the tube system once the London Transport body co-ordinating all aspects of the capital’s transport was created in 1933. When we catch sight of a tube map, it is still one of those drawn by FH Strangemore, composed of curving lines which attempt to follow the contours of real geography. Frank Pick’s famous design, reducing the complex web of intersecting lines to a pipeline schematic of geometrical semi-abstraction, would not appear until 1933. When Nell gets off at Waterloo Station near the end of the film, she does so by opening the gate at the end of the carriage herself. The pneumatic automatic door system, operated by the driver, had evidently yet to be introduced on this line. By 1930, it would be a feature of all the trains, which were by then standardised throughout the system, so this scene was about to become historic even as the film was made. The opening title cleverly incorporates the ceramic UndergrounD sign outside a station, each letter contained within its own tiled block, with the bracketing U and D larger than the rest. These signs, and the graphic setting of the word, were used on the buildings which Leslie Green designed for the UERL (the Underground Electric Railways Company of London) and on their posters and publicity. The UERL predated the amalgamation of different and competing lines within the Underground Group, of which it was the major and controlling company.

Anthony Asquith
Asquith demonstrates an inventive cinematic eye throughout. Although the story he tells is fairly conventional and clearly aimed at a popular audience, he is not averse to using innovative or experimental techniques to express its more interior aspects. He was familiar with the latest films from Europe through his membership of the London Film Society, which screened pictures by the likes of Fritz Lang, FW Murnau and Sergei Eisenstein at the New Gallery Cineman in Regent Street and the Tivoli in The Strand. Alfred Hitchcock was another member and regular attendee. The Society was set up in 1925 under the aegis of the renowned newspaper critic Iris Barry. She was assisted by Ivor Montagu, an enthusiast for the more experimental form which some European directors were taking. He had travelled to Germany in 1925 and written an article for The Times about the new German cinema, and was familiar with its practitioners, some of whom he knew personally. He would go on to work with Hitchcock on the post-production of The Lodger after its fate became embroiled in the internal politics of the Islington Studios where it was made. Rather than impose his views and act like some heavy-handed studio enforcer, as Hitchcock feared, he voiced his enthusiasm for the film and encouraged him to emphasise the expressionist elements, extending them to the design of the intertitle cards. The Lodger, also restored by the bfi and released in a new print last year, provides a good point of comparison with Underground. By the time of Asquith’s film, the European techniques have been fully absorbed and raised to a new level of technical sophistication. The cameras have also moved beyond the studio, displaying a greater facility for location shooting. Such freedoms, and the mature and complex visual style which had developed by the end of the 20s, would be severely curtailed by the arrival of sound and the cumbersome equipment which accompanied its near universal adoption, and it would be a long time before they were rediscovered. Asquith himself, after his next film A Cottage on Dartmoor, would retreat from his innovative and highly cinematic style, producing the kind of conventionally theatrical fare which would be a dominant part of British cinema for the next few decades; Pictures like Pygmalion, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Crane shot - location shooting in Chelsea Creek
The expressionist use of shadows in Underground can be seen in the distorted grid stretching along the angle of the ceiling and walls from the skylight outside Kate’s room. When she comes out to look over the banister and watch Bert’s return, she is caged within these bars of shadow, one of which covers her eyes like a blindfold. It’s a perfect visual shorthand with which to introduce the character, trapped as she is within the cage of her own lingering longing for the man she watches, and by the unrelenting demands of her work which imprisons her within her room and her inescapable poverty. The play of shadows also provides a humorous counterpoint to Bill and Nell’s initial encounter in the well of the emergency staircase, in which they awkwardly arrange a first date. As the two look at each other and speak in nervous bursts of speech, their shadows on the wall behind them diverge from the movements and gestures of their progenitors, embracing and kissing in what amounts to a projection of Bill’s (and maybe also Nell’s) sublimated desires. The Lots Road power station, with its towering, smoking chimneys and monumental, block-like mass looks like a futurist fortress, and is the perfect locale for tilted and skewed expressionist angles. The underground sign at the start, which serves as the title card, is also set at a diagonal slant, a statement of stylistic intent. Asquith also includes shots which fill the screen with abstract geometrical patterns, as if he were drawing on the work of Futurist, Russian Suprematist or Constructivist, or (nearer to home) Vorticist movements. All were intent on producing an abstract or semi-abstracted art for the machine age in which the straight line and grid pattern predominated over the rounded, branching forms of nature. A close-up of the wooden escalator steps has their revolving rectangles, with their raked perpendicular striations, passing hypnotically before our eyes. There is also a shot which pans along a lengthy row of angular windows high up on the wall of the power station, which gives a sense of measured out time and distance (Kate is running towards the entrance at this point).

Superimposition and rapid intercutting familiar to Asquith from the montage techniques of Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov is also employed to add new psychological and metaphorical layers to the story. In a scene set in a street corner pub, shots of the patrons and their interactions with Bert are interspersed with brief, repeated inserts of snooker balls being struck by cues and the hammers of a player piano jangling against the strings. Both imply an element of sound and serve to conjure up the atmosphere of the place in a visual manner. Later, the increased frequency of the inserts also creates a sense of rising tension as Bill enters and a confrontation brews up. When a fight does break out, the final sucker punch is shown as a point of view shot from the perspective of the unfortunate recipient (Bert). The fist flies towards the camera until it almost fills the frame (and we can imagine it cracking the lens), at which point we fade to black – the blank screen of unconsciousness. The shot is subsequently replayed as a loop superimposed over Bert’s bloodied face as he walks home, its obsessive reiteration a projection of his furious sense of humiliation. Later, as Kate runs towards the power station, she seeks Bert’s glowering face projected over it. This serves the direct narrative function of indicating his presence in the building, the projected object of her breathless dash. But it also makes the subjective link between the driving power generated by the dynamos within and the electrifying, force which Bert seems to exert on Kate, driving her on as if her will was no longer her own. When Bert emerges from the power station for the final pursuit, his hair has risen into a crazed expressionist shock, a wild mad scientist thatch worthy of Lang’s Rotwang or Dr Mabuse, or Robert Wiene’s Dr Caligari. It’s as if he’s absorbed the power from the generators and has turned into some fizzing electrical monster.

Rooftop chase - river view from the Lots Road Power Station
There are further individual touches which add an idiosyncratic flavour to the film. During the frantic fight in the lift, a blind man (and we know he’s blind because he’s go a notice hung around his neck which says so) gazes off in the opposite direction. This creates a certain tension in the viewer, whose attention is partially drawn away from the action. Comparitive shots of Kate and Bert preparing themselves in front of their separate dressing table mirrors in their separate rooms (she readying herself to approach him, he rapidly changing to head off to the pub) make the gulf between them apparent, and tell us how futile her hopes of winning his non-existent affections are before we even see them meet, or learn of their former relationship. Incidental characters also add depth and enriching detail to the bustling and crowded city portrayed in the film. There’s the starving urchin in the countryside, a penniless street artist by the river, and an old man playing a jig on a penny whistle to entertain a straggling group of children, as well as the odd assortment of well-worn regulars at the pub and the diverse cross-section of working Londoners on the tube. The opening and closing shots make imaginative use of the blackness of the tunnel to emulate the blankess of the screen before the film frames begin running through the projector. At the beginning, a white dot just off centre expands to reveal itself as the tunnel mouth as the train in which we are enjoying a ‘phantom ride’ (with the camera point of view placed in the driver’s cab) approaches a station. It’s like a cinematic variant on the theatrical curtain being raised on the drama about to unfold. At the end, the process is reversed, the darkness of the tunnel expanding to enfold us, the curtain lowered to bring the story to a close.

Platform seating - Waiting at Waterloo
Silent film soundtrack maestro (and sometime playwright – he wrote a very touching play about Laurel and Hardy) Neil Brand provides another of his fine programmatic scores, which responds to the shifting moods and registers of the story with an appropriately wide-ranging use of orchestral styles. He also employs sounds from his orchestral palette for several moments in which instruments are played onscreen (the penny whistler, a mouth organ wheezed by the urchin, and Bert’s whistling of The Boy Friend), incorporating them smoothly into the score rather than resorting to direct imitation. There’s a quotation of the tune ‘Where Did You Get That Hat?’ for a scene in which Bert tries on a series of the pancake-shaped caps he favours, which is a nice little touch typifying the care he takes to match the music precisely with what we are seeing on the screen. Brand’s classy score it the icing on the cake for this excellent restoration of film which will only add to Asquith’s reputation as a rediscovered master of British silent cinema.

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