“It is a much starker contrast than, say, in Hitchcock’s London films of the same period, where the humorous grace notes of the urban everyday and a happy ending are balanced throughout by a recognition of the inherent instability and all-out terror of the same modernity that produces those grace notes.”
It’s not every silent melodrama that gets the full restoration, new orchestration, and commercial rerelease treatment, but Anthony Asquith’s 1928 debut solo feature has had the good luck that its title and principal setting coincide with the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground. Although it may not reserve the same treatment stateside (so far no American distributor has picked up the rights from the BFI), the restoration has had several gala one-off screenings with live orchestra since its world premiere at the London Film Festival in 2009, and is currently playing at first-run theatres in London to respectable and appreciative audiences. But even if the film does not make it to big screens stateside, it is a matter for rejoicing that it will be released on DVD this spring for the first time ever, and will thus be available for viewing (and reviewing) without a trip to a film archive (you can see the trailer, with part of the opening sequence, here; or see below). To be able to catch Underground was quite a treat for me, since I was in town for the same occasion as the film’s rerelease, it has never been available on VHS or DVD, and the only time I had seen it previously had been an unrestored copy on a viewing console at the British Film Institute. The BFI restoration is a triumph, and to see it on the big screen was a revelation (click here for a video on the restoration). Neil Brand’s orchestration is just about perfect: lush and powerful without being hectoring or tendentious, feeling timely and contemporary at once, and neatly incorporating the aural cues provided at several moments in the visuals of a film that just missed out on the conversion to sound (Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released the same year, is generally regarded as England’s first sound feature). Like some of the greatest films of the 1920s — Metropolis and Sunrise for starters — Underground is profoundly dated, but, also like those films, the ways it has dated are profoundly interesting, and, like those films, it is stylistically daring, visually stunning, and more complex formally than its dated elements may at first allow it to appear.
Plot-wise, Underground is an old-fashioned romantic melodrama of working-class lovers in south London. (You can skip this paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers, but like many genre narratives, plot twists are well beside the point.) Plucky heroine Nell (Elissa Landi) is a shop girl selling accessories (buttonhole flowers, scarves, and gloves) at a department store counter. She falls for tall, slim, and blond company man Bill (Brian Aherne), a porter for the Northern Line at the Waterloo Underground station. Meanwhile, Bert (Cyril McLagen), a ladies’ man and cad employed as a repairman at the local power station, is also in love with Nell, while Kate (Norah Baring), a hard-working seamstress, is smitten with Bert, her upstairs neighbor. Out for revenge when Nell gives him the brush-off, Bert persuades Kate to accuse Bill of sexual assault. He then quits his job and leaves his rented room to escape the promised marriage with Kate, her condition for being his accomplice. Abandoned by Bert, Kate agrees to tell the truth, but first she confronts Bert in the control room at the power station. Matters quickly spin out of control into a bravura spectacle sequence: he pushes her into the 11,000-volt cable, killing her and knocking out power to the Underground. Bill pursues Bert through the power station’s hallways and stairwells, across its rooftops, down a conveniently hanging construction rope, and onto a construction crane shovel. Bert drops Bill off the shovel into the river and flees across the construction site, down into a railway cutting and into the Underground tunnel, pursued by a dripping-wet Bill. They make it onto the platform split-seconds before the train, power restored, pulls into the station, and continue their fight on the elevator, to the horrified eyes of one boy and several ladies, along with the shocked ears of a blind man, trapped in its confined space with them. When the elevator doors open at station level, Bert is lying on the floor, apparently dead, and Bill is standing over him, dazed but victorious. The movie’s coda recapitulates the opening sequence on an Underground carriage, except that Nell is no longer alone: she is with her husband, who has been promoted for his heroics to train conductor.
Unlike Sunrise, however, this is a resolutely urban film, saturated in modernity and city life. Asquith retains nothing resembling Murnau’s village or traditional mores. When Bill and Nell ride the bus out to a park for a hillside picnic beside a pond in what is shot as if it is deserted countryside, an urchin quickly appears attempts to make off with their bread. Sympathetic to the boy’s hunger, they give him the bread, throw in a banana, and are rewarded with an impromptu harmonica serenade. What we thought was a rural idyll turns out to be another take on urban worldliness. The only other tokens of nature in the film are the buttonhole flowers sold by Nell, which Asquith deploys effectively in their time-honored symbolism of female purity and honor. When Nell’s boss catches Bert flirting with her at work, she lets him off the hook for the price of one chrysanthemum, which he wears proudly until he discovers she has agreed to marry Bill (Bert’s one saving grace as a villain is that he seems genuinely fond of Nell and really does want to marry her). When Bill comes to take her for their Sunday out, he brings Nell a single rose, which she wears happily until, on an impulse, she gives it to the hungry urchin (who puts it jauntily in his own cap). Later, Kate, shopping in a frenzy for her presumed wedding after she has agreed to Bert’s scheme, buys a rose she can’t afford for Bert’s buttonhole and sticks it in his lapel as she kisses him. He will drop it on the floor of his room when he leaves; lying there, it will first inform Kate that he has abandoned her (presumably after having also seduced her, although this is never shown), and then Nell that Bert was involved in Kate’s entrapment of Bill. It’s that middle episode that is striking, especially when Nell remembers that Bill had just given her the flower she has blithely offered to the young boy. She turns to her fiancé with a look of guilt, and he laughs, genuinely. Not for this pair the outdated and artificial morality of a Victorian world.
The sympathy of Underground for the worldliness of its characters well mirrors the film’s fascination with technological modernity and the ways urban living has transformed their lives. None of the four principals is ever shown with or refers to any relation, not parents, siblings, or children. We see each of them at home in the rooms where he or she lives, alone, as if this were a normal state of affairs. But although they each live alone, these characters do not live in isolation, with the sad exception of Kate, apparently too buried in piecework to have time for anything else. Bert and Bill, for example, frequent the same local pub, where both are well known and, apparently, well liked, or at least, in Bert’s case, good-humoredly tolerated. Asquith depicts the Underground carriage as an analogous social world, where some characters behave correctly and others incorrectly but all interact with each other regardless of their class identification, very far from the withdrawn and alienated state as which sociologist Georg Simmel a couple of decades earlier had already characterized society, and which he epitomized by behavior on public transport, and far even from the tolerant condescension with which Murnau’s city dwellers regard the hayseed antics of the reconciled Man and his Wife in Sunrise. Rather than an alien or alienating place, the Underground is depicted as a novel space to which everyday people are rapidly and good-humoredly adapting.
Nell and Bill are also distinguished in another related way from Bert and Kate. While the latter pair have recognizably 19th-century and literally physical occupations — he’s a repairman at the power station and she’s a seamstress — Bill and Nell have positions that only exist within the modern city and then quite recently, especially in Bill’s case. Both hold service jobs in large commercial enterprises — she’s behind a department store counter, and he’s a porter helping passengers negotiate the technological novelty of the Underground’s escalators. The implicit argument of the film’s genre plotting is that these new jobs are more suitable and more rewarding than the older working-class occupations of Bert and Kate. Or, at least, they are more desirable; from the beginning of the film, Bill and Nell seem more comfortable and better off than either of their counterparts, whom we see struggling to make ends meet and in general dissatisfied with their lot in life. And, of course, with Bill’s promotion at the film’s end, they are shown to have moved successfully into the lower middle class. It’s rare indeed in 1920s film to find urban technology portrayed to be in this degree sympathetic to and nurturing of the common person.
Now, there is a dark side, quite literally, to this positive vision of modernity. The utopian vision on offer here was very much in line with the corporate vision of London Transport in the 1920s and integral to the strain of British modernism discussed by Michael Saler in his book The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground. But Underground executive Frank Pick would have had no truck with the brutal turn to violence that Bert’s and Kate’s desperate actions precipitate into Bill’s and Nell’s worldly insouciance and simple competence. The eruption of violence into the Underground puts into question the viability of this new model as long as Victorian excess remains on the scene. Bert’s Cockney scheming and Kate’s lovelorn hysterics quite literally have no place in the new world of the Underground, and they are rejected from it with a brusqueness and finality that are generically warranted but ill prepared for by the film’s overall tone. It is a much starker contrast than, say, in Hitchcock’s London films of the same period, where the humorous grace notes of the urban everyday and a happy ending are balanced throughout by a recognition of the inherent instability and all-out terror of the same modernity that produces those grace notes. This is not to deny the visceral thrills of Asquith’s spectacular chase scene, but only to observe that it, too, is Victorian in heritage — a sensation scene in the old style. Not that you couldn’t make big sensation scenes in big urban settings in modernist films — Hitchcock was a past master at it from early in his career. But Asquith’s shift in tone risks incoherence, or, to put it from the critic’s point of view, it begs to be analyzed further. What, to be specific, do we do with the power station, associated with all that is excessive and recidivist in the film, in relation to the Underground, associated with everything that is modernist and forward-looking?
The power station is Bert’s territory, and it is very much a space of physical labor — we see him working with a wrench, getting himself greasy, dirty, and wild-haired from direct contact with the current, in stark contrast to Bill’s thin lips; fine, fair features; and a neat suit that barely looks wrinkled even when he fishes himself out of the river during the chase scene. It is the site of a violent murder that literally threatens to darken the entire system (although the engineers have power restored with amazing quickness after Kate’s death). Asquith films his location, the Lots Road Power Station across the river in Chelsea (which did, in fact, provide power to the Underground for nearly a century, from 1905 until shut down in 2002) according to the 19th-century iconography of the industrial sublime, framing the enormous twin smokestacks from a low angle against a glowering sky, the clouds glowing as if from within. In contrast, he films the Tube at eye level, familiarly. Even in the opening and closing footage of the train emerging from the dark tunnel, it’s a picturesque and unthreatening sight, tunnels and carriages on a human rather than an industrial scale, the same scenes you could view through the front window as a passenger, a favorite vantage point of children and Tube enthusiasts for the century or so since locomotive-free trains have been in use. This contrast is heightened by the vertiginous pursuit, which takes the two men across the rooftops with the river and skyline terrifyingly distant in an unmistakably real background, even as the actors slip and slide down around sloping tiles. Asquith includes a swinging crane in the near background as if to allow us to verify the reality of the setting (earlier, he had used back projection to stage the genial bus ride to the Sunday picnic on the open platform of a double decker) and its very real dangers. When the two men rappel down the outside of the massive building via the hanging rope or dangle and fall from the crane’s shovel, we witness firsthand the inhuman scale of this technology even as we thrill to its terrors and suspense. This sense of the modern cityscape as a thrillingly sublime spectacle dates back to the mid-19th century and was an established convention of popular theater as well as the fine arts.
Once the chase reaches the station platform, the scale changes, the fighting is hand to hand, and the framing stresses the disturbingly intimate audience to what appears to have been Bill’s barehanded execution of Bert on the elevator. Asquith cleverly elides the actual moment of truth by having us ride up with a terrified Nell in the adjacent elevator. The scene of the fight occurs in the closed space off-screen as it ascends from platform to ticket hall level. And here is where things get really interesting. Like Hitchcock a faithful attendee of London’ s Film Society during the late 1920s, Asquith was well versed in the newest technical and aesthetic developments from the Continent, especially those of German expressionism, French impressionism, and Russian montage. Underground employs double exposures, subjective shots, overlapping editing, and other experimental effects with a light touch throughout, but especially in the Underground sequences. Particularly striking is the shadow play Asquith employs in paired scenes at the foot of the emergency stairway, first for the burgeoning romance between Bill and Nell and then for the faked assault scene with Kate (see production still above). In the first sequence, Bill leads Nell to the private space of the deserted staircase, seating her at the foot of the spiraling stairs as light from the corridor casts their kissing shadows onto the curved stairwell above and behind them. As Bill lingers, the shadows continue their projected kiss, even as Bert’s jealous face looms up next to Bill’s in the foreground. In the second scene, Kate and Bill occupy nearly the same positions as in the prior scene (she has pretended a fainting attack at the escalator), but it is Bert’s shadow we see, revealing for us his form and its nefarious intentions, lurking further up the stairway. Stripped of their traditional function of moving bodies from platform to ticket level, the stairs have become a private space, and a space where fantasy (either ideal or horrible) reigns over reality. The scene makes a self-conscious allusion to the cinematic photoplay in general and a specific reference to the German expressionist film Warning Shadows (1923), where shadow plays warn suitors of the baron’s wife of their likely fate at his jealous hands. The stairway, fetish setting of the expressionists (as also, already, of Hitchcock), is here a private corner of the Underground and, as such, a seductive and dangerous place. Typically, in melodrama, location influences if not determines the type of action. But for all the visual pyrotechnics, Asquith records the events here neutrally: he films the first sequence as romance, with no sense of disapprobation over an Underground employee abandoning his post or putting company property to private use, and the second sequence as melodrama, with Bill facing loss of lover and of livelihood.
On the Underground, stairs are only for emergencies and sub-surface lines; the more modern modes of ascent and descent are the elevator and the escalator, absolutely necessary for the deep-level tunnels of the Tube lines that had been built at the turn of the century and were being extensively expanded in the 1920s. The escalators would have been especially noted by audiences of 1928, as the Underground was just wrapping up an operation begun in 1924 that replaced fifty-five of the system’s elevators with new escalators. The earliest Tube stations had been built with elevators, but the escalators, first introduced in 1911, were seen as more efficient and more modern, for a number of reasons clearly in evidence in the spatial associations of Asquith’s film. The elevator here is claustrophobic and terrifying, site of hidden violence and uncomfortable proximity. We see it only in the concluding scene and are relieved to be rid of it. The escalator, in contrast, is an overwhelmingly positive space in the film. It is where Bill works, where he meets Nell, and where the pair fall in love. Asquith films it lovingly and lingeringly, especially stressing the signature traits of its technological innovation: its perpetual motion and its spatial openness. These are tunnels, yes, but they’re light and fast-moving and human-scaled. We first meet Bill when he trips Bert at the foot of the escalator, allowing Nell an extra minute to escape his importuning. But she has dropped her gloves in her hurry, and he rides the escalator up passing her coming down to retrieve them. They both walk in place, hovering around the midpoint of the parallel escalators, neither swept away by the technology nor actively fighting against it. Instead, their play with the machines echoes their playful flirtation, with just enough control and just enough loss of control to savor every minute. Amazingly, no one else seems to get upset at their antics, and we never see Bill reprimanded for insulting the dignity of the profession. His job on the Underground may be to ease the adjustment of passengers to this new and possibly frightening and dangerous technology, but his job for us is to show us the possible pleasure in mastering it and using it either without thinking or for pursuing our own desires. It’s infrastructure in the service of the people rather than the other way around.
The train carriages function in a similar way. The film ends as it began, with gentlemen offering ladies their seats (in the opener, Bert was introduced sneaking a seat from under a sailor who had stood to offer it to a lady passenger). Nell, standing, refuses with a smile. “No thank you. I’m with my husband,” she explains, as the framing shifts around to reveal Bill, promoted to engineer, answering our question of what has happened since we had last seen him, above Bert’s body on the elevator. Their private life, rather than stifled by or getting in the way of this new technology, has been easily incorporated into it. In Asquith’s vision, the Underground is the new England, comfortable with modernity, bringing to it what it wants to preserve from the old world (manners and some form of gender and social distinction, but also some equality of gender and class, all deployed with grace and good humor) and leaving behind what it doesn’t (unruly passions and physical labor). The part that doesn’t fit this vision is the relationship between the power station and the Underground. Now, it’s easy enough to write Bert and Kate out of the picture, but Asquith is well aware that it’s not so easy to eliminate the motor that keeps the city — and the Underground in particular — moving. He films the power station to relate it to Bert and Kate and their Victorian dynamic, and he’s as aware of its visual force as he is of its literal power. It’s a representational dilemma: if the technology of modernity is to become a comfortable element of English life, it can no longer be filmed in the language of sublimity or fulfill the plot function given it by melodrama — spectacular setting for the climactic set piece. It’s as if he has been able to displace the traditionally sublime connotation of underground space onto the power station, but he can’t get rid of it altogether. If he had, you’d find both modern life and movie narrative brought to a standstill.
We could perhaps dismiss this ideological overdetermination as the conservative instincts of a child of privilege with little affinity for working-class reality. But while there is certainly a degree of condescension in Asquith’s borrowing of the conventions of Victorian melodrama, I see more going on in the film that that. First is the sheer anomaly of a cinematic underground that is overwhelmingly positive in its representation. On film, the Underground railway is, at best, the scene of banal everyday routine, and, at worst, the scene of alienation and the impossibility of living a normal life (think of other ’20s films such as Metropolis, its life-sucking elevators and endless stairways, with nary a liberating escalator in sight — or more recent subway films such as the crime drama The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 or Kontroll, Nimród Antal’s dystopian allegory of life in Budapest). Asquith’s film attempts to take the Underground at its word and to film it as it was. It is priceless if only for its documentary footage of everyday life in 1928 London (Asquith had, in fact, trained as a documentarist), but even more valuable for its argument that a documentary approach to urban infrastructure was at least as effective a means of getting at the meaning of urban modernity as transforming it into a symbolic underworld would be. If in the end heartless toward its Victorian miscreants, the film remains striking in the autonomy it grants its four principals before the violent denouement, demonstrating for Asquith’s audience that the shocks and novelties of the modern city were something to be negotiated and enjoyed rather than merely suffered and submitted to. That he was unable to resolve the Victorian core of a modernizing London should not lead us to overlook the way he vividly dramatized the processes at work between these two signal forces in the development of the city and its transport network. Nor should we overlook the degree to which the film avoids many of the traps that continue to beset urban representation today even as it trips over perhaps the most fraught issue in urban cinema — what to do with the city’s past. In the case of cinema, of course, the answer is simple: save as much of it as possible. In the case of the city itself, having raised the issues so pointedly without managing to resolve them is nothing to complain about, especially when it looks as good as Underground does.