A love triangle between a shop clerk, a porter and an electric plant worker erupts into violence when she chooses the former over the latter. Heavy use of location scenery sets this railway melodrama apart.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
One of the quirks of the silent era was the desire to assure audiences via title card that they were seeing plain stories about workaday people—and then the films proceeded to throw throbbing melodrama onto the screen. Literal cliffhangers, deadly ice floes, you name it, and a simple story of ordinary people would do it. (The Crowd is a notable exception in that it truly committed to its “man in the crowd” concept.)
So, when the British film Underground opened with a title card assuring the viewer that they would be seeing ordinary people living their lives, I knew exactly what to expect and I was not wrong.
The film concerns a young shop clerk named Nell (Elissa Landi) who meets a power station worker named Bert (Cyril McLaglen, one of many brothers of Victor) while riding the London Underground. He gets handsy and she gets rid of him by grabbing his hat and tossing it across the railway car.
The same day, Nell meets a real gent of a porter, Bill (Brian Aherne), and it’s love at first sight for both of them. Bert, though, has decided that Nell is his personal property and immediately dumps his current girlfriend, a seamstress named Kate (Norah Baring), in order to make way for her.
This leads to trouble because Bill has impulsively proposed after his first date with Nell and she has accepted. Therefore, he doesn’t take too kindly to Bert ordering him to stay away from “his” Nell and the pair duke it our bare fisted. Turns out that Bert isn’t much of a fighter and he slinks away to plan his revenge. His plan is cunning: he makes nice with Kate and convinces her to claim Bill assaulted her. That will tarnish Bill in Nell’s eyes and get him fired, so the marriage will be off either way.
One thing he doesn’t count on, though, is Nell’s skill as an amateur detective with a personal stake in cracking this particular case.
(Spoiler) Things go wilder from there and culminate in Bert electrocuting Kate at the power plant, knocking out power for a good part of London. As always happens in an everyday story of average people.
Underground feels like it’s trying to be two movies at once. The location scenery is fabulous, showcasing the streets of London and looking fresh and exciting in the process. But this is combined with a stilted and cliched story that doesn’t really tie into the Underground (you know, the title) other than the characters riding it once in a while.
Another major flaw in the film centers on its leading lady. Elissa Landi has this tendency to stare at the camera like she has lost her grandmother, her dog and her best friend simultaneously and it was her co-star’s fault. I assumed that when she did this in The Sign of the Cross, it was because she was overplaying the Christian martyr thing. No, she just does it all the time. This is fine for scenes with McLaglan but does not work so well when she brings the storm clouds to a romantic picnic with Aherne. It just comes off as overdramatic and out of sync with the mood of the scene.
Brian Aherne isn’t bad but he’s also not all that dynamic or interesting to watch. His lack of presence combined with Landi’s mismatched reactions kind of kill many of the film’s major scenes. Landi only really works when she is interrogating Kate.
Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring (who was a silent era Asquith regular), on the other hand, play their roles for all they’re worth and Baring is particularly good as a basically decent woman pulled into something nasty by the man she loves. Classic tragedy material and she sells it. McLaglen embodies the scheming, swaggering bully, though I wish the film had better explained why his cunning seemed to leave him in the final act.
If there is anything to be learned from Asquith’s silent output, it is that his direction really comes to life during scenes of physical or emotional violence. The shotgun sequence and subsequent humiliation of a major character in Shooting Stars, the throat-cutting sequence in A Cottage on Dartmoor. The romantic scenes in Underground are stilted and artificial and Asquith doesn’t expend much cinematic firepower on them. That’s reserved for fights and electrocutions.
There’s an old joke about a man who goes to the doctor for a pain in his arm. “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” he complains. “Well, don’t do that,” replies the doctor. In other words, Asquith clearly was uncomfortable with happy love scenes, so why focus so much on them? I realize there were studio and audience expectations but soggy tragedy was big business too.
If Underground had focused on the stronger acting and story potential of the deeply flawed-yet-sympathetic Kate, it could have packed a real wallop. Instead, we get (spoiler) a bog standard Hollywood ending after the horrific (but mostly offscreen) violence at the power plant. Bill and Nell flirt and canoodle like nothing happened and there is nothing but bright sky ahead for them.
It cannot be denied, though, that Underground looks amazing. Locations were used to great advantage and studio sequences beautifully lit by Karl Fischer. Asquith and cinematographer Stanley Rodwell collaborated on all of his silent films and employed the “unchained camera” technique that had become wildly popular. Again, the film shines when it’s nasty. We get a first person point of view closeup of fist meeting face (one of the earliest I have seen) and the moody shots of Kate climbing mounds of coal to find Bert are remarkably striking.
What we have in Underground is a modern twenties film with the latest mode in imagery that could have been written when the Underground first opened in the mid-19th century. The virginal, hardworking clerk, the swaggering bully, the noble working man, it’s all there and it really doesn’t work.
There is a bit of on-the-nose material, as well. For example, the “Danger—High Tension” sign prominently centered above the power plant action. I’m just amazed we didn’t get a closeup of a “Caution—Contents Under Pressure” sign for good measure.
Underground is a mixed bag. It’s not as mean as Shooting Stars and it lacks the setpiece of A Cottage on Dartmoor. However, the industrial setting of the film does give Asquith a chance to play around with smoke, soot, light and machinery. The story isn’t much to write home about but McLaglen and Baring elevate their characters with enthusiastic performances.
If you loved Asquith’s other films, you will probably enjoy this a lot. If you’re like me and not quite on the Asquith bandwagon, I don’t think it will win you over. It definitely has strong elements but just misses being the complete package.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by Kino Lorber. It’s a lovely BFI restoration with a rousing orchestral score by Neil Brand. It likely has not looked or sounded this good since it was first released.
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We showed this film at Cinecon 33, in 1997, with a print supplied by Byron Dixon at the BFI. It was a muddled, and deteriorating print, but still most excellent and riveting. Our institution was instrumental in beginning the restoration, that is now available on DVD. A most worthy film, and a definitive moment for director Asquith.
The restoration is absolutely breathtaking