Returning after its eleventh-hour cancellation this time last year, the tenth edition of Scotland’s festival celebrating silent film and music, Hippfest, is online 17th – 21st March. Even though an online event this year, the festival is about more than merely screenings of films, and integrates online Q&A sessions, documentaries and introductory talks into a widely-varied mix encompassing drama, comedy, romance and crime from a century or so ago – the height of silent cinema.
Underground, a tense romantic drama which made its debut in 1928, is a good case in point – on accessing the film through purchasing a pass, the viewer is treated to an introductory talk by the Festival’s Director Alison Strauss, and a short talk by Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film at the BFI National Archive, about its restoration. Although challenging, as the few prints of the film were in various states of dilapidation, a successful restoration has been achieved by combining their best segments, and only occasional and momentary outdoor sequences seem at all washy.
The screening is followed by a live Q&A session with Bryony and composer Neil Brand, whose masterful score, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, forms the musical accompaniment, which follows the action perfectly, rising and falling as the drama unfolds.
After beginning the film the viewer has 48 hours in which to view; taking advantage of this, I watched the introductions on the Friday, and the film on the Saturday morning when free to enjoy it, and armed with some background insight. Director Antony Asquith (the prime minister’s son, coincidentally), had honed his technique in the burgeoning Hollywood film industry; returning to the UK, he put to use a number of imaginatively methods to develop the film’s narrative from an everyday romance with appealing visual touches, into a tense and dark drama with a thrilling climax, reflecting the increasing sophistication of audiences and directors in the later silent era.
Engaging, artful touches include recurring foreground shots of hands, intercutting of hats from one scene to another, and recurring shadows (see main pic) and occasionally, noticeably elevated ‘fly on the wall’ camera angles. At other times we’re reminded that film, at this stage of its development, still relied on tricks of suggestion borrowed from theatre, for instance the power station’s office has a very basic wall-projection of machinery to indicate that this is the power station’s office.
It was also one of the first feature films whose background is the railway by extension its electric power – a nod to the flourishing mechanised aesthetic in art and design, the nascent genre of railway poster art, and later railway-centred romances such as Brief Encounter or Sliding Doors. It touches on the pre-war topic of metropolitan sprawl too, enabled primarily by the tube, with the action taking place between central London and suburban Kent, and the backdrop of the newly-electrified London Underground railway system, powered by coal-fired power station – a reference in the title.
The concerns of women’s everyday safety, and the predatory male – still disturbingly raw in 2021 – chime with our modern experience, as do other familiar themes such as human interaction in crowded settings, and the desire to trust people we don’t know.
The plot concerns four young people: what appears at the beginning to be a love triangle between two men – one, Bill, an Underground porter, one a power station electrician, Bert – and a female shop assistant Nell, becomes a dangerous and entangled drama. Bert, the unsuccessful suitor, manipulates his former sweetheart Kate, who still adores him, into framing mild-mannered Bill in such a way that he would be ruined and unable to marry Nell; the plot grows darker as Bill, desperate to clear his name, confronts Bert in a violent pub brawl, and later in a perilous rooftop tussle high above the Thames.
It’s compelling and fast-paced, adding ever-darker malevolence and brute force to the romantic beginnings, culminating in a chase and fight to the death in the Underground station passenger lift.
With Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring. Available until end 21st March.