Director: Anthony Asquith
Cast: Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen
Synopsis: A working-class love story set in and around the London Underground of the 1920s. Two men – gentle Bill and brash Bert – meet and are attracted to the same woman on the same day at the same underground station.
An ordinary story about working folk ‘like Bill, Nell, Kate and Bert’ might have been seen as a condescending choice of subject for the 26-year-old son of a former Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister to choose for his first film as director. After all, Anthony Asquith’s life could have borne little similarity to those of his subjects. Fortunately, Asquith’s enthusiasm for the project shines through in every frame of Underground, which shows him to be a young director every bit as proficient as Alfred Hitchcock, the other rising star of British cinema at the time, and in an opening twenty minutes which shares little in tone with the rest of the film, he’s as careful to gently mock the more snobbish patrons of the London Underground as he is the working class.
Brian Aherne, who would go on to enjoy a successful Hollywood career from the mid-1930s, plays Bill, a handsome but mild-mannered conductor on the underground who takes a shine to young shop assistant Nell (Elissa Landi, who forsook her own stuttering Hollywood career for one as a novelist before succumbing to cancer in 1948). His feelings are reciprocated, but Nell is also the object of affection of brash power station worker Bert (Cyril McLaglen, younger brother of Hollywood hard man, Victor). Bert is one of those young men whose belief in their attraction to the other sex is grossly out of touch with reality, and he just can’t seem to take no for an answer. His desire for Nell seems to be more than purely physical, however, and so enamoured of her is he that he brusquely rejects the overtures of former girlfriend, Kate (Norah Baring), who works as a seamstress in the flat next door to Bert’s.
Despite Nell’s best efforts to dissuade him, Bert persists with his efforts to woo her, only finally accepting that he has a real rival in Bill when the other man informs him that he and Nell are to be married before then soundly beating him in a pub fight. The film then takes a darker tone as a humiliated Bert devises a revenge plan. He softens his attitude towards Kate, promising to be nicer to her if she will make a false accusation of attempted rape against Bill. Of course, the poor girl is so deluded that she goes ahead with his scheme despite having deep reservations, and her false claims result in Bill being suspended from his job pending an investigation. Under threat of losing his job, Bill now feels he is unable to marry Nell, despite the fact that she chooses to stand by him after overcoming her initial doubts.
Story-wise, the most striking aspect of Underground is the way that Asquith, who wrote as well as directed, devises a fluid progression from a light-hearted treatment that borders on romantic comedy to an altogether darker and more nightmarish scenario that no doubt owes much to his apprenticeship at UFA. As Bert’s plan begins to unravel and Kate learns that she has been used, the screen is filled with dark shadows with characters looming over a low camera. There’s also an effective scene in which Bert closes the door to a panel (ominously labelled ‘Danger. High Tension Cable, 11,000 Volts’) while at work (at what might be Battersea Power Station) to reveal Kate watching him. It’s a shot that’s been used thousands of times since, but this is an early — perhaps the earliest? – and effective example. It’s a shot in keeping with a recurring theme of people observing others going about their business unaware that they’re being watched, and demonstrates Asquith’s ability to provide depth to an otherwise simple storyline. For example, after his fight with Bert, Bill returns to the pub in which it happened and notices a mirror above the door, broken by one of the wayward snooker balls thrown by Bert. The shattered glass, in which Bill’s fragmented reflection can be seen, both illustrates Bert’s skewed perspective and foreshadows the destructive consequences that are to follow.
Asquith also makes effective use of London locations. A scene atop an open-topped bus provides glimpses of London streets unclogged by queues of traffic, while the exciting and well-staged climax, which takes place on the rooftops of Bert’s workplace, are played out against a background of the 1920s London skyline.
Underground proves to be an accomplished debut from Asquith and a worthy vindication of British Instructional Films’ faith in a young and unproven director. Asquith has been unfairly labelled as an actor’s director who depended on his performers rather than any technical or artistic skill to carry his films, and while it’s true that many of his later films (The VIPs, The Yellow Rolls Royce, etc) became glossy exercises in mediocrity, Underground shows just how well Asquith understood the language of film.
Reviewed 6th December 2013)