by Allan Fish
(UK 1929 83m) DVD1/2
p H.Bruce Woolfe d Anthony Asquith w Anthony Asquith novel Herbert Price ph Alex Lindblom m (2006 Stephen Horne) art Ian Campbell-Gray, Arthur Woods
Norah Baring (Sally), Uno Henning (Joe), Hans Adalbert-Schlettow (Harry), Judd Green,
Poor old Anthony ‘Puffin’ (son of Prime Minister Herbert) Asquith has had a raw deal up until recent times. Many of his detractors accused him of being a theatrical director, reliant solely on performances and erudite dialogue. One could look at his talkie output and find it hard to disagree with them, with the likes of The Importance of Being Earnest, Pygmalion, Quiet Wedding, The Way to the Stars and The Winslow Boy, utilising perhaps better than any other director the words of those most English of wordsmiths, Rattigan, Wilde and Shaw. But it was in his first three silent films that he gained his reputation, and though I have been unable to see his debut film, Shooting Stars, both its reputation and that of his second film Underground, which I have seen and liked well indeed, back up my opinion of this, his third and last major silent, A Cottage on Dartmoor.
Another reason for his and the film’s long neglect is the fact that melodrama had for a long time been out of fashion, but the age of reappraisal for the works of Nic Ray, Douglas Sirk and John M.Stahl has brought about a necessary fairer appraisal of several late silent films made in Britain. E.A.Dupont’s Piccadilly is covered later in this list, while even the great Hitchcock himself has seen the reputation of his The Manxman, once dismissed as utterly forgettable by critics, enhanced by the claims of modern French and British critics. Asquith’s film is as melodramatic, and as straight-forward in its story, as any of them. It’s another example of the old green eyed monster in which a barber in a South-Western town loves the manicurist at the establishment where he works. He’s overcome by furious jealousy, however, when she attracts the attentions of a young and well-to-do Dartmoor farmer, and they go on a date to the cinema. The barber sees them there and, after seeing them together a couple of times at work, where the farmer comes for treatments especially to see her, finally snaps and makes as if to kill the farmer when he is in his chair and being manicured by their object d’amour. To top this all off, it’s all framed in that most cherished of melodramatic plot structures, the flashback, with the barber escaping from Dartmoor prison to make good his promise on being lead away from the girl he loved “I’ll come back and finish him off, and you, too…”
Let us not dwell too much on the plot, though, or indeed on the acting, though it is serviceable enough in the style of the day. It’s in the visual craftsmanship – yes, visual – of its director, that the film most astonishes. It’s easy to say that the film is influenced by German expressionism to the point of being blasé; take a look at Hitch’s Blackmail and The Lodger to see that Britain had absorbed that influence before one of the German masters, Dupont, arrived to make Piccadilly. One could also go on for pages about his use of lighting, such as the back-lighting of the vengeful barber by the cottage firelight in the shadows. More remarkable is his use of montage and his borrowings from the Soviet school of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, especially in the film’s most fêted sequence, the rise of jealousy in the barber when, in quick succession, Asquith juxtaposes a snapping string, battleship guns firing and an almost subliminal blank red flash frame to literally show jealousy’s breaking point, prefiguring the murder attempt on the farmer. What seems most revealing, however, is not what Asquith himself was influenced by but how he influenced others. His opening scene, of the convict running across the moors in his bid for freedom, with reflected rippling pools, skeletal trees and forbidding sunset skies, can be seen to be a direct influence on both opening scenes to David Lean’s Dickens’ films; the tone of the convict and the marshlands linking to Great Expectations, but the lighting, those murky skies and trees and figures in silhouette became Oliver Twist. One cannot be influenced by one master’s greatest work and in turn influence another’s greatest work without, oneself, being a master who was, like the barber here, “terribly fond of pictures.”