Mind the gap! London's Tube system is one of the big stars of this charming 1928 British silent, newly restored by the BFI.
This lovingly restored British silent from 1928 charts a tortuous (and eventually murderous) love-triangle that germinates within the musty bowels of the London Underground system. Elissa Landi's cutesy shop girl Nell captures the wandering eye of flat-capped hound dog Burt (Cyril McLaglen) on the rammed carriage of a wood-paneled tube hurtling down the Northern line.
Despite his attempts to woo her, Nell is already smitten by dapper ticket inspector Bill (Brian Aherne), and this triggers an horrific violent streak in the belligerent Burt. To execute his vile scheme, Burt chooses to coerce his needy seamstress roommate Kate (Norah Baring) into the mix, taking cruel advantage of the fact that she's head-over-heels in love with him.
As a piece of whiz-bang nostalgia, Underground works like gangbusters, especially to regular customers of the Underground who will no doubt take great joy in being whisked back in time. The vivid location photography presents tiled tunnels, grand, art deco escalators with resplendent uplighters, shadowy fire exits and bustling train platforms.
The sensational opening shot is a cheeky riff on the fade up from black, as the train-mounted camera trundles from the dark tunnels and the tiny pinhole of light from the platform expands, iris-like, as it gets closer and closer.
What's primarily fascinating about the film that is operates as much as a piece of newsreel or documentary as it does a fictional thriller. The value of seeing these locations, how people move within them and that, bar a few small tweaks, very little has actually changed in nearly 90 years, is immense and actually rather moving in itself.
Director Anthony Asquith is actually a better visual stylist than he is a storyteller, and while the emotional machinations and character motivations are occasionally charmingly hokey, he impresses most with the editing of the set-pieces and the placing of the camera. One shot of a bar-room brawl which culminates in the breaking of a pub mirror is extremely shocking, even without sound effects.
Plaudits must also go to Neil Brand's delightful new orchestral score which perfectly modulates between happy-go-lucky British Light Music motifs of the era and Herrmann style brooding. It's especially affecting in the stunning chase finale where Bill chases Burt around the grounds of the Lots Road power station in Chelsea and then eventually back into an Underground tunnel to meet there destiny.
A British silent set on the London Underground – where do we sign?
Sags a little in the mid section, but the pros far outweigh the cons.
A hokey tale of love and murder and a whimsical time capsule of a not-so-bygone age.