Friday, 18 November 2016

Puckishness and verve: The Silent Cinema of Anthony Asquith

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013, i.e. before the restoration and subsequent release of Asquith’s innovative 1927 film debut as director, Shooting Stars

A DVD release from the BFI that occasioned justifiable excitement was that of Anthony Asquith's 1928 silent romantic thriller, Underground, which joined his 1929 film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, on DVD (Blu-ray too for Underground). They are two fine examples of late silent filmmaking in Britain, not least because they were made by a man still taking his first steps in the industry and experimenting with film’s visual language, garnering influences from diverse styles and using them for his own storytelling ends. A Cottage on Dartmoor came out in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which cast it rather into the shadows. I’ll look at those two together a little later – it’s fascinating to contrast Asquith and Hitchcock’s style – but for now I’ll begin with Underground.

Underground is, as the opening title card tells us, a tale set in ‘the “Underground” of the Great Metropolis of the British Empire’, a ‘story of work-a-day people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert’. It’s also a stirring tale of romance and madness, booze, bad doings, betrayal and electricity. Briefly, Nell is a shopgirl who finds herself nonplussed to be courted by two men on the same day. There’s Bert, a troublesome sort with a predatory aspect who she meets in a tube carriage, a man whose snarl and sneer comes as readily as the winning smile he can produce when the occasion demands. There’s also Bill, a calm, even-keeled sort who works as an underground porter. Bill and Bert are sort-of friends, or pub pals at least. Nell welcomes Bill’s advances, shuns Bert’s – but Bert has fallen hard for her. As hard as Kate – a yearning, desperate dressmaker who lives upstairs from Bert – has fallen for him. Her cringing submissiveness in his unreciprocating presence is painful to see.

And so the stage is set for a film whose unpredictability is one of its pleasures. It starts off with a jostling for romantic position with lost gloves and chance meetings laying out the characters’ predilections. And then, in one amazing smoky, boozy, smeary pub scene at the centre of the film, everything changes. It opens with Bert flinging darts at some point behind the camera and then holding court for the winkng, nudging men at the bar who goad him on while an unimpressed barwoman looks on. A pianola tinkles its tune and snooker balls are pocked around the cushions. Then Bill walks in, and – in payback for his jokey trip on Bert in an early scene at an underground escalator – is given a push over a man crouching behind him, whereupon Bert dusts him down exaggeratedly – as Bill did to him – but this time it’s threatening and there’s a glint of menace in his eye. One jibe about Nell too many and Bill hits him to the ground, whereupon Bert picks up a snooker ball, throws it at Bill and smashes a mirror. Bill turns and lumps him – and the camera – one, but at that point of the mirror cracking, something cracks in the films too and lets in madness.

Neil Brand’s music curdles at this point as a bloodied, humiliated Bert walks out the bar, and, recalling Bill’s fist, conjures up an image of Kate, waiting at home for him. Alcohol is seeping through his pores and we fear the worst, the spectre of Battling Burrows in Broken Blossoms arising before us. Thankfully there the similarity ends but the menace remains as Bert uses Kate to get back at Bill with a false accusation, the film taking us into areas we could little have expected at its beginning, with a thrilling, at times vertigo-inducing chase scene around Lots Road power station.

Some various delights of the film: the silhouette of a couple on the stairs above Bill and Nell as they make a date; Bill landed with a woman’s baby just before he meets Nell at the bus stop, and then the pair of them seen through people boarding at the bus doorway as it is just about to move off without them; Kate – in a shot from the expressionist style guide – peering down from above to Bert’s doorway, her eyes blackened by the shadow of the banister as moonlight falls aslant through the skylight; Nell’s hand holding her single glove fading to Bill holding its pair as he distractedly roasts a chop on the fire, and Bert’s stern face superimposed over the looming chimneys of the power station. If this sounds like Asquith was adopting a pick and mix approach to what worked, well that was a tendency he also showed in A Cottage on Dartmoor.

The memorable quote about A Cottage on Dartmoor, from the writer Raymond Durgnat, is that the film ‘out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, before Hitchcock became Hitchcock’. It’s an eye and ear-catching line but much as I hate to disagree, I don‘t think it stands up to scrutiny, as a comparison of Asquith’s film with Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released the same year, will show.

A Cottage to Dartmoor begins with the bare branches of a lightning-blasted tree and lowering clouds. A man drops to the ground in front of a stone wall and sets off in flight, scattering cows as he runs through moor fires to sink to his knees and lap at the water in a pool, which dissolves to the water in a child’s bath. The lovelorn hairdresser Joe has escaped from prison, out for revenge on manicurist Sally and the customer she has taken up with, the older farmer, Harry. Fate – by way of a note lost from a posy of flowers too excitedly handled – has led Joe to feel slighted, betrayed after an unwitting sign of encouragement was innocently given to him. He snapped and threatened Harry with a razor to his throat while he sat in his barber’s chair.

At times when watching A Cottage on Dartmoor, one is struck by the sheer virtuosity of sequences, such as the rapid-fire switch cutting in the cinema between its patrons, the band and Joe’s imaginings as he sits, hawk-like, eyes pressing in on Sally and Harry from the dark of the balcony, or the odd and effective angles as Joe leans in on Harry to shave him and the unforgiving ceiling light shines down, or the moment of madness that follows when Joe cracks and the screen flashes red, or the aftermath of his act, as a bottle of hair oil gloops out on to the floor, the staff standing around in silenced shock. Or quieter moments, as Sally holds up some almost transparently white baby’s clothing as she first suspects that she has heard something suspicious outside her house.

However, one of the criticisms of the film at the time was that it didn’t quite all add up, that its techniques and trickery perhaps masked an emptiness at its core. The Evening Standard said that ‘it has all sorts of cleverness – Russian cutting and symbolism, German drama and Asquithian puckishness – but is not a satisfying whole’. Viewing the film now when our reactions are lensed through grateful good fortune of being able to watch any survivals at all from the silent era – especially ones as good as this and in such good shape – it’s harder to sympathise with this point of view, seeing instead a catalogue of bravura techniques brought to the aid of the story to be told. And yet, watched a second time you can start to see what is meant. And this is what leads into the comparison with Hitchcock’s Blackmail.

After cracking off like a Fritz Lang thriller in Blackmail – all motion and technology sending policeman on their way to pull in an unwary old lag – Hitchcock soon asserts his theme. Distorted reflections of the two policemen in a thin mirror in the criminal’s room, then distorted reflections of people’s moving shadows in the brass plate of New Scotland Yard serve to equal out everyone in Hitchcock’s purview. Then there are the hands – the film is a veritable hand ballet, from the policemen in the washroom with handcuffs and hands in pockets, to Frank playing pocket billiards as he trawls the apartment for clues, to the pointing hand of the jester in the murdered man’s painting – laughing at Alice, the girl who killed him after he tried to assault her, and at her detective boyfriend Frank who is assigned to the case. Distortion, restricted views of people – it all adds up to a coherent, cynical view of humanity whatever their apparent station in life. Hitchcock, viewing all with a gallows humour, sets his sights pretty low and is unsurprised when his human subjects don’t even reach these. He expects no better, knowing that a civilised veneer is stripped away all too easily and readily. In Blackmail in particular – and Hitchcock’s films in general – everywhere is a crime scene, actual or potential. The same could not be said of A Cottage on Dartmoor, where places are settings for drama, or redemption even (and there’s an un-Hitchcockian word), but not crime. Where are we, the viewers in Hitchcock’s scheme? On one hand we are in on the joke. I can’t imagine Asquith putting a modesty screen in a room so his heroine can change – and then setting up the shot from behind the screen so she changes in full view of the camera and the viewer. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get any ideas above our station – the joke is on us too, and never so clearly as in the final scene when the painting of the jester – a portly not-quite Hitchcock figure but close enough for you to wonder – is carried through the doors of the police station, still guffawing, ever louder seemingly, and pointing out of the screen at us.

Hitchcock’s gleefully sardonic nature runs throughout the film. I think of the signs that Alice sees after she has committed the murder – ‘A New Comedy’ advertises a theatre sign; ‘Gordons – White for Purity’ flashes the advertisment (before it metamorphoses into a stabbing knife). Asquith uses signs too at the end of Underground, where after Bill has battered Bert into submission in the underground lift, theatre posters comment obliquely on the action, with a man’s ‘Blind’ neck-hanging sign and the Fortune Theatre poster combining to make ‘Blind Fortune’, and then ‘The Vagabond King’ as Bill stands over Bert’s body. However, they are less obtrusive here, more of a subtle dab of tonal variation. In Blackmail, they are part of the very fabric of Hitchcock's vision.

As a final comment, in A Cottage on Dartmoor, Asquith allows more complex shades of emotion and ambiguity within a framework of a certain fated weariness. His is a world in which understanding is allowed and forgiveness is possible. In Blackmail, Hitchcock’s characters live with guilt and its consequences, in A Cottage on Dartmoor, Asquith’s characters live with forgiveness and its consequences. It’s the difference between peering out from behind oneself and living wholly.

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