Blu-ray and DVD (dual edition) distributed by BFI, 2013
London’s bustling subterranean rail system provides both the title and the setting for Anthony Asquith’s “story of ordinary work-a-day people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert,” four working-class individuals whose lives are intertwined first by romance and later through intrigue. Underground (1928) was Asquith’s first solo directorial effort,1 and over time the film has gained a reputation as an important work overdue for rediscovery, not unlike his subsequent picture, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), which surged into the popular spotlight following its restoration by the BFI in 2006. Part thriller, part romance, part melodrama, and (now) part time capsule, Underground not only entertains with first-rate drama, it also provides a fascinating glimpse of the manners and customs of the 1920s London Underground. Until recently, the lack of high-quality source material has kept what remains of Underground on archive shelves and out of public view, but with the discovery of an additional source came the opportunity finally to restore the film, culminating in the premiere of the newly restored feature at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2009 and the release of the dual-edition Blu-ray/DVD package that is the subject of this review. [End Page 123]
As was the case with A Cottage on Dartmoor, Underground tells a simple story in a compelling way.2 The film begins in a tunnel, with the light of the opening growing larger as the train emerges and pulls up to the platform. Inside a rail carriage we meet Nell (Elissa Landi), an attractive shopgirl who sells accessories at a department store, and Bert (Cyril McLaglen), an electrician who works at the Underground power station. As the railcar rocks along, Bert attempts several flirtatious approaches with Nell, which she confidently evades. Exiting at Waterloo station, Nell sees Bill (Brian Aherne), an affable station porter with whom she is apparently already acquainted, perhaps romantically, and there follows a charming sequence in which she accidentally drops her gloves at the base of the up-escalator and, upon that realization, boards the down-escalator to collect them just as Bill heads up in the opposite direction with the intention of returning them to her. They meet in the middle, “treading water” in tandem against the direction of their respective escalators, while the hurrying commuters rush and swirl around them.
Meanwhile, Bert’s infatuation with Nell quickly descends into obsession, and when he learns of her relationship with Bill, Bert’s mood turns to bitter resentment. In an explosive rapid-fire sequence, Bert attacks Bill in a pub, throwing punches as well as billiard balls before Bill delivers the knockout blow in a brilliant camera flash—a shot that will be repeated time and again in Bert’s mind as his passions turn to revenge. Plotting Bill’s downfall, Bert enlists the film’s fourth “ordinary person,” Kate (Norah Baring). Kate is an innocent but weak-willed seamstress whose unrequited love for Bert compels her to participate in his scheme intended to disgrace Bill and (unknown to Kate) that will presumably lead Nell into Bert’s arms.
Director Anthony “Puffin” Asquith was a son born of privilege. His father was Herbert Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and prime minister of the United Kingdom (1908–16), a circumstance that undoubtedly opened doors for his son, including a six-month visit to Hollywood in 1926, where the twenty-three-year-old “Puffin” stayed as a guest of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. There he took advantage of every opportunity to observe Hollywood’s greatest practitioners at work, including next-door neighbor Charles Chaplin, who at the time was working on The Circus (1928). As Asquith later recalled to biographer R. J. Minney, “I made a close study of all the processes of filmmaking from camera work to cutting and editing. I asked endless questions, I’m afraid, and they were kind enough to guide me through every stage.”3 Not only was the young aristocrat Hollywood trained, according to Lillian Gish, he had arrived already a student of the...