Mind the sap: Underground

12 June 2013

Anthony Asquith's 1928 film 'Underground', the BFI's latest Dual Format Edition, is released on Monday, 17 June.

Separated from the outside world, the London Underground is a utopia of overnight fancies and impulsive proposals. In its carriages today one can find, competing for one’s attention amidst thousands of other marketing schemes, adverts for online dating agencies that promise subscribers a range of social specifics: naming just two, there are those for uniformed services and there are those for office workers, for both of whom working hours have become so demanding and alienating that all hopes of basic emotional and/or sexual gratification are virtually prohibited. With their rhetorical questions and appeals to base desires, these placards are symptomatic of a diseased and institutionalised age: love has been privatised by capitalism as much as anything else.

Was it always this way? Possibly, yes: one might argue that “our” underground transport system – Europe’s most expensive – was one of the defining moments by which the capitalist class could concentrate its labour force for the purposes of exploiting it to more productive use, under the guise of utilitarian modernisation. You can’t have one without the other, of course, but the dialectical payoff is the concretisation of a miserable wage labour (and, granted, the preconditions of a politically mobile workforce). To hell with anyone confused by the telling loneliness that can define this most social of spaces.

Underground (1928), written and directed by Anthony Asquith, transports us to the Tube as an always-contemporary microcosm, which “with its teeming multitudes of all sorts and conditions of men [sic], contributes its share of light and shade, romance and tragedy, and all those things that go to make up what we call life”. Its plot pivots around a quartet of youthful hopefuls (“whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert”), all of whom work in trades that would form a large part of twentieth-century working life in the capital and elsewhere (a shop girl, a porter, a seamstress and an electrician). Spanning about a week in story-time, Asquith’s 89-minute film rests its laurels on the deceptive integration of beyond-ridiculous whimsies and a still-impressive formal control.

The romance of hazard, the excitement of chance: when Bert (Cyril McLaglen) tells Nell (Elissa Landi) that she’s the girl for him, the latter reminds him they only met that morning. Later, Nell’s mother warns her daughter about the other fella on whom she has pinned her hopes: “But Nell dear, you saw him for the first time this morning.” It’s not at first clear who Nell’s been fantasising about, but a dissolve from the one glove she didn’t lose earlier that day to the one that she did verifies that it’s Bill (Brian Aherne), who ponders over his new crush by a fireplace, holding and cherishing her dropped item of clothing, which he has retained.

Those who still associate the advent of sound in film with some kind of loss in “pure cinema” terms will delight in this film. Like Shooting Stars (1927), on which Asquith worked as an uncredited director, it’s a sophisticated film whose pivotal narrative moments are all told in strictly visual terms. Indeed, the film’s slimmer than slight story, demanding the suspension of disbelief that it does (just how many times can four people cross paths in such a short timeframe?), suggests that plot wasn’t the top priority here; rather, the focus is on the hows of cinematic storytelling.

Among the film’s many deft touches is a scene in which Nell and Bill meet for a picnic, and we watch them from a stationary bus that begins to pull away without them. It’s only one example of many in which the camera is strategically placed behind a crowd of extras, which busies the frame and lends a novel sense of urgency. As Hitchcock did in Blackmail (1929), Asquith begins his film with a documentarian aesthetic, establishing a plausible and dynamic filmic space and employing a number of formal traditions thereafter. The documentary feel with which the film opens has obvious historical value, too: the early observational shots of passengers ascending escalators, and that view from a Tube’s front carriage entering a station, point to a period fascination with the Underground and chime well with the several documentaries included as extras on this BFI Dual Format Edition: A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway (1910), Scenes at Piccadilly Circus and Hyde Park Corner (1930-32), Seven More Stations (1948) and Under Night Streets (1958).

Other features: a newly commissioned score by Neil Brand, who gave a live piano performance when I saw the E.A. Dupont-directed Piccadilly (1929), a film with which I had until recently Undergound mixed; an alternative score by Chris Watson; a 9-minute featurette on the restoration of Asquith’s film; and the usual informative and typically well-produced accompanying booklet with essays, illustrations and credits.