Underground

So many interesting things happen in Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent film “Underground,” that it’s difficult to categorize it as anything but quintessentially British. Most of the movie takes place at a London underground tube station, and the two main male characters work for the London transit system. Brian Aherne plays Bill, a uniformed tube station worker who instantly falls for a passenger named Nell (Elissa Landi). Bill spends his days watching the escalator to make sure passengers get safely on and off it. First, the film shows crowded trains, and the social conventions of when to offer a seat to a fellow passenger. Then, we see the mad rush of people getting off the trains.

Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi find romance in "Underground."

Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi find romance in “Underground.”

On the train, pretty Nell catches the eye of Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a gruff and aggressive electrician who works at the power station. She sells scarves in a retail shop, where Bert goes to pursue her only to find that Nell prefers the company of Bill. Bill and Nell’s budding romance starts off with a date on the top of a double-decker bus, and the couple seem oblivious to the danger of Bert’s stalking behaviour. After Bert confronts Bill in a pub and comes up short in a fight with him, Bert decides to ruin his reputation. We learn that a perfectly nice but emotionally unstable dressmaker, Kate (Norah Baring), who lives in Bert’s boardinghouse, likes Bert a lot and wants to be his wife. They concoct a scheme to have Bill implicated in a sexual advance towards Kate. This episode eventually leads to tragedy and the film’s thrilling climax.

Asquith makes excellent use of the tunnels of the London Underground, with their dark shadows, to give the film an expressionist feel. It’s unfortunate for Bill and Nell that they make this chance encounter with Bert, but the film’s theme makes it clear that you’ll never know who you might meet on the Underground. Asquith, a master at editing, pieces together such rich scenes that I could feel the whirl of these commuters as they rush to and from their shopping and appointments with little kind thoughts about the hundreds of people in step with them.

I watched the movie as part of the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. After previously seeing this film and “A Cottage on Dartmoor” at the 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I can certainly recommend any of Anthony Asquith’s films. His directing career spanned from “Shooting Stars (1928)” to “The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964),” and included over 35 feature films.

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