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Directed by Anthony Asquith
Produced in 1928
Main Language - Silent
Countries & Regions - British Film
Anthony Asquith's subterranean tale of love, jealousy and murder, with a new score by Neil Brand. For sheer entertainment, its expressionist shadowplay is hard to beat, writes Mike McCahill.
The re-release of 1928’s Underground marks a picking-up of three strands in recent British film culture. First and most obviously, this is the latest stop in our communal rediscovery of silent cinema, sparked by the huge critical and commercial success of last year’s The Artist and nudged on further by the well-received restoration of Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Secondly, it follows the BFI’s 2008 DVD of A Cottage on Dartmoor in seeking to reposition Anthony Asquith as the other major homegrown director to emerge from the silents.
And thirdly, it’s – like so many of 2012’s most notable releases – a London film, from its title on down busily involving itself with what’s going on in the capital both at and under street level. There are promenades along the Thames and punch-ups at Battersea power station, under a sign that reads “Danger: High Tension”; the final showdown at Waterloo, meanwhile, pre-empts the thrills of The Bourne Supremacy by a good eight decades.
Asquith, unlike Hitch, clearly refused to be contained to a studio set: the surprise, revisiting this, his second film, is just how much energy he crams into these ninety-odd minutes. Narratively, Underground is no more than a slightly stock merry-go-round, involving a quartet of working class characters intersecting like the tracks at King’s Cross, yet Asquith’s film does a livelier job of suggesting how its principal figures might be connected than several recent high-profile, fully-talking mosaic movies.
The foursome in question here are Nell (Elissa Landi), a shopgirl whose haughty beauty apparently charms everyone she commutes alongside; Bill (Brian Aherne), the ticket inspector she falls for on her daily travels; Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a seasoned ladykiller in a flat cap whose sincerity in pursuing Nell is somewhat in doubt; and, finally, Kate (Norah Baring), one of Bert’s exes, clinging to the faintest hope of a reunion with her beloved in agreeing to do his romantic skulduggery.
You could plot these couplings – their comings together, their eventual deviations – schematically, as though on the Tube map itself, but that would be to miss out on the filigreed entertainment, the sheer fun, Asquith generates between stops. Smart throwaway gags proliferate: spot the soldier who can’t bring himself to step off the escalator right foot first, as advised, because his CO is standing directly behind him, or the old dear who takes a snooker ball somebody’s hurled through a pub window as evidence of the heaviest of hailstorms.
Asquith’s shadowplay, while not quite fully expressionist, is still unusually bold, and he’s particularly adept at working in intricate motifs, like the floral buttonholes Bert discards along with every other woman in his life. As for the Tube itself – returned to the centre of frame, in the year of its 150th anniversary – anyone commuting in to see the film will either be reassured or dismayed to note it appears very much the same as it is today. The crowded platforms; the tentative eye contact; the infinitesimal violations of personal space. Practically all that’s vanished is the smoking.
Mike McCahill on 16th May 2013
Author of 264 reviews
The BFI Archive's acclaimed restoration of Anthony Asquith's subterranean tale of love, jealousy and murder. This classic British film from the silent era features Neil Brand's new orchestral score, recorded live in 2012, which perfectly compliments the film's richly detailed evocation of 1920s London.
From his own screenplay, Anthony Asquith balances the light and dark sides of London life, aided by a superb cast of Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi as the nice young lovers and Norah Baring and Cyril McLaglen as their unhappy counterparts.
More than any other film from Britain's silent canon, Underground evokes the life of the ordinary Londoner with its scenes of the bustling underground and the capital's parks, double-decker buses, pubs and shabby bedsits.
Length: 94 mins
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Format: DVD+Blu-ray B&W
Released: 17th June 2013
Cat No: BFIB1036
- 2 discs
- Feature presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
- Newly commissioned score by Neil Brand presented in 5.1 and 2.0
- Alternative score by Chris Watson
- The premier and his little son (1909-12, 1 min): previously unseen footage of Anthony Asquith as a child
- A trip on the Metropolitan Railway (1910, 13 mins, DVD only)
- Scenes at Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner (1930-32, 6 mins, DVD only)
- Seven More Stations (1948, 12 mins, DVD only): a film about the expansion of the Central Line beyond Stratford
- Under Night Streets (1958, 20 mins): a documentary about the tube's nightshift workers
- Illustrated booklet featuring film notes and new essays by Christian Wolmar and Neil Brand.
by Robert Hill on 20th October 2013
'Underground' is a lively film, which makes imaginative use of its locations. These include a department store, a pub, a boarding house and a power station along with ... Read on
'Underground' is a lively film, which makes imaginative use of its locations. These include a department store, a pub, a boarding house and a power station along with the London Underground. The observation of individuals in public places is very well done, although the film tends towards melodrama in its later sequences. One memorable scene is set in a park, where a hungry boy plays a tune on his mouth organ in exchange for a sandwich. In 1928 the house pianist would probably have extemporised the tune in cinemas, but on the dvd it is brought to life in the score by Neil Brand. The music captures the pace and mood of the film very well. The dvd includes an array of historical extras and makes a most enjoyable package. Hide