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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #8: Underground, 1928

Underground, 1928

My first--and mostly likely NOT last--British film of the series is a visual feast and emotional ride on the Tube.

Director: Anthony Asquith
Writers: Anthony Asquith
Cinematographer: Stanley Rodwell
Produced by British Instructional Films
Starring: Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, Norah Baring

Why I chose it
When a good film friend recommended this one and offered to loan me her copy, I jumped at the chance to include my first British film in this series. I had considered watching one of Hitchcock's silents, or the lauded Lillian Gish vehicle, The Wind, but Underground rose to the top. I was especially curious to see Brian Aherne in a silent film, and also Norah Baring, who I had only seen in Hitchcock's early talkie Murder!

The following gifs are shared by permission of my friend Vânia from

Lovers above ground.

Brian Aherne is the film's protagonist.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
Bill (Aherne) is a porter/attendant in the London Underground who immediately becomes smitten with retail salesgirl Nell (Landi) when he notices her on a long escalator at an Underground station during the morning commute. In the same setting, though, she also meets and charms Bert (McLaglen), an electrician who works for the transit system. Bert pursues Nell aggressively, but the only problem is Bert is loved by his neighbor, the sweet Kate (Baring), who runs her own dressmaking shop. This love quadrangle heats up in multiple ways, with jealous rages and dirty tricks, until tragedy strikes. The film culminates in an incredible chase scene.

Production Background and 1928 in Film History
Anthony Asquith, the son of a UK Prime Minister, studied filmmaking in the U.S. before he began as a director in his native England. He was only 26 years old when he made Underground, his second feature. I loved this quote from Asquith: "In England when you make a movie, even the weather is against you. In Hollywood, the weatherman gets a shooting schedule from all the major studios and then figures out where he can fit in a little rain without upsetting MGM too much." Asquith later developed a reputation for directing theatrical dramas like Pygmalion and The Winslow Boy.

Anthony Asquith (

Underground is notable for its stunning visuals, of course, thanks to cinematographer Stanley Rodwell, but perhaps even more for the location settings: the London Underground scenes were filmed in and around the Waterloo Station, and the power station scenes were filmed in the Lots Power Station, now defunct. The film was little seen after its release, and I couldn't find details of its release in the U.S. although it must have screened in NYC at least, as it was reviewed by Mordaunt Hall in the NY Times. In 2009 the film received a restoration by the British Film Institute, and was burned to DVD. It was released to UK cinemas again in 2013 to celebrate the 150-year anniversary of the Underground subway system. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1928*:

  • After their success with The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers releases their first 'all-talking' film, The Terror.
  • RKO Productions, evolving originally from the Mutual Film Corporation (1912), was created in the merger of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Film Booking Office (FBO) and Keith-Albee-Orpheum.
  • The animated character soon to be dubbed "Mickey Mouse" made his debut in the Disney short film Plane Crazy.
  • Charlie Chaplin released The Circus, the fourth feature-length film he directed.
*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • If anyone wanted to argue that silent film is a lesser art, this film would be among those I would show them. The masters of this art created a new medium of storytelling through moving black and white images that is worth discovering nearly 100 years later. In this film, Asquith delighted in contrasting scenes of dark and light, 'underground' and above ground', and he juxtaposed the beauty of his protagonists (Aherne and Landi, and McLaglen and Baring to a lesser extent) with the ugliness and idiosyncratic visages of random people around them. The camera was as active as the actors, taking along audience members as we journeyed along the tracks and streets.
  • Based on the amount of shadows and canted angles, it is hard not to recognize the impact of German expressionism. There were some obvious symbolic shots that some viewers may find 'over the top', but I absolutely loved them. See some of them in my screenshots below.
  • It was fun to see Elissa Landi and Norah Baring again, two actresses that I'd only seen in a total of three films to date: After the Thin Man and The Count of Monte Cristo for Ms. Landi, and Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! for Ms. Baring.
  • I had no idea prolific character actor Victor McLaglen had an acting brother; it turns out that he had four! Cyril McLaglen was his younger brother and didn't resemble his more famous brother much in my opinion, yet his rugged face was tremendously expressive, moving from bashful to menacing within moments.
  • I can't wait to see more of Brian Aherne. A native Brit, he made many films in Hollywood in the early talkie era when he was at his most handsome, leading-man phase (although his career lasted into the 1960s). It won't be long before I pick out of few of these to watch (What Every Woman Knows, The Constant Nymph and The Fountain all look interesting).

We're on the train as it approaches the station platform
teeming with passengers.

Bert (McLaglen) eyes Nell (Landi) as they sit side
by side riding the Underground.

Superimposition of images telegraphs tragedy ahead
as Kate (Baring) confronts Bert.

Bert's hair and face in shadows enhance our fear of 
him in a crucial scene.

We see the back of Kate as she approaches
the ominous Lots Power Station as dark clouds hover.

Nell hides while observing Bert.

Kate pretends to have a fainting spell to distract Bill.

The local barmaid isn't missing a thing.

Bert flicks a piece of lint off Bill's shoulder in a parallel
act of Bill's from earlier in the film. 

A shadow covers Kate's eyes as she looks out her 
window to watch Bert approach.

The initial intimacy between Bill and Nell is
caught only as a shadow.

First close-up of handsome Bill (Aherne)

At the film's end we pull away from the largely vacant platform.

Where to Watch
I expect this can be found by subscribing to the BFI streaming channel, but it doesn't appear to be accessible anywhere else online. Otherwise, there is the DVD release from the BFI on Kino Lorber.

Further Reading
The British publication The Guardian published an article on the 2013 re-release of the restored film in cinemas here.
Fellow blogger Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings posted a review of the Kino DVD release of the film. 


  1. Wow, so many luscious shadows in those shots! Almost a precursor of noir in some ways, maybe? And I had no idea there were so many McLaglens either!

    1. Hi! Well the movie foreshadows noir with its use of expressionistic techniques and some fatal themes, that's for sure. It really showcases the high art of the silent era.

      And I always thought Victor McLaglen was one of a kind, too...I wonder if he helped his brothers out at all in their careers.