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A Cottage on Dartmoor is a late British silent of stunning clarity and
poetic justice. The use of the camera to caress the homey accents in
Norah's boarding house, the use of mirrors to dramatize the lives and
thoughts of the characters, the elongated camera angles of the escaped
convict jumping from captivity to freedom, and running from his past
into redemption. All of this and more make this late silent itself
almost a valentine to the end of the silent era and the dawn of sound.
One of the most poignant scenes in the movie demonstrates this by taking us to a "talkie" that nonetheless has a full orchestra that the camera hones in on and romanticizes.
While this is a tale of obsession, it is also a story of love that has many emotionally tense elements that Norah Baring and Uno Henning handle with dignity and grace. I'm very surprised that I've not heard more about either of these actors.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is a very beautifully realized film that probably wouldn't have been as effective had it been made as a sound movie.
COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR: an expressionistic and claustrophobic account of sexual obsession and jealousy, very Hitchockian in the way it deals with the resulting crescendo of suspense, especially in connection with a key throat-cutting in a barber's chair incident. Asquith was a director who grew stodgy as his career entered into the sound era, viz his terribly British adaptions of Rattigan, but the present film (1929) is rather an eye opener. One standout scene is set within a cinema, partly a comment on the imminent and creatively burdensome coming of clunky sound, and which contains an extended eye opening use of editing, cutting about within an audience as the beady-eyed boy friend watches his victims - a bravura sequence which ought to be much better known to cineastes.
I'm extremely impressed with every aspect of 'A Cottage on Dartmoor',
directed by the underrated Anthony Asquith (son of the Prime Minister).
The camera-work features some superb tracking shots, kept perfectly in
focus by focus-puller Arthur Woods (later a brilliant director in his
own right, all too briefly before his death in World War Two). There is
a clever and subtle flashback transition. The frame compositions are
excellent, as are the performances by this obscure cast. At the climax
of this monochrome film, there is a single flash of red: Hitchcock
would later use this same device in 'Spellbound'. I wonder if Hitchcock
copied it from Asquith.
Most of this story takes place in flashback, a device which I normally dislike. Flashbacks are now so hackneyed that there is an entire cinematic grammar of flashbacks: the screen goes blurry, the soundtrack swells with theremin music. Here, the transition to flashback is done subtly, with the first dialogue intertitle bridging the shift. Well done!
Some minor details distressed me. We see a prisoner who escaped from Dartmoor. His uniform displays a number, but shouldn't it also have the broad arrow? Also, since Joe (the convict) has sworn revenge against Harry Stevens -- his rival for the affection of Sally -- why ever have Harry and Sally moved to a remote cottage on Dartmoor, conveniently close to Joe's prison? This is the sort of thing which Hitchcock identified as 'icebox logic', the cinematic equivalent of "esprit d'escalier".
This film was made at an awkward moment of cinema history. The movie is silent, yet (in the dialogue titles) the characters on screen discuss going to 'a talkie'. But when they go to the cinema, a live orchestra are playing ... which indicates that the movie being shown is a silent. And an insert shot of a programme book tells us that the movie is Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last', definitely a silent.
Not the least of this film's pleasures is its depiction of life in George V's England. I got a twinge of nostalgia from a brief shot of an infant clutching a rusk. (Do modern babies eat rusks?) In the central role, Norah Baring is excellent: portraying a simple manicurist, she is personable and pleasant to look at, without the implausible amount of glamour that a Hollywood actress would have brought to such a workaday role. I'll rate this fine character drama 8 out of 10.
Sally lives in a cottage on Dartmoor when, on a dark and quiet night, a
man breaks into her home having just escaped the high-security prison
across the moors. That man is none other than Joe, a former barber's
assistant at the place where Sally used to be a manicurist. As they
connect eyes, the audience flashback to the times where Joe and Sally
once worked together and he had tried to woo her at the beginning of a
series of events that now brought them to this place.
The BBC's summer of British films this year turned out to be better than I expected it to be because, instead of wheeling out Zulu, Dam Busters and all the usual British films, they actually screened lots of films that I had not seen or, in some cases, heard of. Of course this meant that some of them were not any good but at least it was an attempt to fresh up the idea of what British cinema is. A Cottage on Dartmoor is a good example of this as it is rare for silent films to be screened on television and far more rare for them to be British silent films. I had never seen this and I enjoyed it a great deal.
Narrative-wise the film opens with an element of fear and tension before jumping back to more of a comedy and romance. As this builds back to where it started again for a good finish. The film is maybe 15 minutes too long for the material to sustain but otherwise it is well delivered. The funny bits are amusing, the tense bits tense and the romance nicely melodramatic and tragic, however it is the delivery that makes the film specifically that of Asquith and his cinematographer. Visually the film matches the tone of the film really well opening and closing with sharp shadows on the moors, and enjoying a bright and carefree air early in the barbershop scenes. The images are sharp and really well formed with plenty of clever shots. Mirrors are used well, conversations represented by stock footage, flashbacks delivered within flashbacks and a great scene where we watch a cinema audience reacting to a film they are watching. Visually and technically it is very impressive and I enjoyed it a great deal.
Deserves to be screened a lot more than it is and be seen by more people than it is, but credit to the BBC for showing it recently.
Firstly, let me say that my little lad eats the occasional rusk and loved them when a baby (now nearly 4). I loved this movie...I saw it for the first time last night on the BBC. I too enjoyed the flashback vehicle, which by using the exclamation (via title) "Joe!" jolted us into flashback. I thought the use of mirrors imaginative and symbolic (Norah appearing at times a disembodied - if beautiful - head among possessive men in the barbershop. I was quite enthralled by the big farmer coming in for a manicure (wink-wink). The images are on reflection quite disturbing in the barbershop...a man having his hands caressed by a pretty girl whilst a cut throat razor is applied to his throat. I too found the trip to the cinema memorable and also poignant. The director at pains to reveal to us the value of the cinema orchestra at a time when their jobs would have been in extreme peril. Couple this with mention of a "talkie" earlier (this received a blank response) and these elements could be viewed as a swan song for the silents. You must see this film, it is truly wonderful. The performances are spot on and it does not always take the predictable turn. Considering the intensity of obsession the male lead character conveys, the film develops great warmth. UNIQUE!!
First time of viewing this one: a marvellous experience, from the
opening shots of a prisoner on the run over moorland from prison guards
to the ending where
The first intertitle is "Joe!" and we're immediately launched into an hour long flashback of how Joe got to be a prisoner and how he knows Sally. He's obsessively in love with her with awful consequences for the man she really loves, and himself - realistically portrayed and apart from the incident in the barbers unfortunately only too believable. The three main leads play their parts wonderfully well with incessant close ups, inventive photography, low cameras and precise mirror shots highlighting the intensity. Photogenic Norah Baring thankfully was no Hollywood Queen, her self possession and simple youthful homeliness adding an extra dimension to the time honoured tale. Favourite bits: Life in Sally's boarding house with the old biddies, ear trumpets and ancient furniture and plants; The cinema segment with everyone including the redundant pit orchestra intently watching a talkie, and of course the orgasmic psycho-jazz snappy editing; The "murder" in the barbers (it was fun watching everybody apparently just watching the dying man dying).
One of the last mainstream silent films produced, it just couldn't have worked even one year later as a slave to the voice this shows exactly what silent films could offer as an artform, and still do to those with a little patience. Try it.
Stylish and tense melodrama which features an opening scene where a man
who has just escaped from prison is seen crossing the stark and gloomy
moors, the sky darkened by black clouds, and not much more to be seen
than a few wandering cows and a dark, bare tree. A woman cares for her
baby at a lonely, isolated cottage, the man slithers in and confronts
her and - she knows him! Now in flashback we see the background story
of these two, Joe and Sally, co-workers in a barber shop where he gives
men a shave and a haircut while she manicures their nails and gives the
customers flirtatious smiles. This prompts more than just jealousy in
this man - he pursues her, she doesn't really seem to like him that
much but does agree to go out with him and they spend an evening
together at her boarding-house where numerous well-meaning, slightly
interfering old-timers seem to live (and he gets some pretty scary
expressions on his face in what seems to be his desperation to kiss
her). When she agrees to go see a "talkie" with a certain male
customer, Joe turns stalker as he sneaks into the theater, secretly
plants himself in the row behind them, and in an amazingly photographed
scene shot using rapid-paced editing, we never see the film they are
watching - instead the camera cuts between audience members plus Sally
reacting as they watch the film, the orchestra playing, and Joe - who
is not watching the film at all, but rather he's glaring in a steady
gaze at Sally and her "date" in front of him.
This is a really excellent, well done film featuring loads of interesting cinematography - softly filtered lighting and shadowy scenes, facial close-ups, and lots of fast cutting. The guard who discovers Joe's escape is seen mainly in shadows against the cell walls, the menacing face of the convict as the camera quickly zooms in to show his face as the woman recognizes him, Joe sharpening his razor, quickly cut between two gossiping female co-workers, as he contemplates murder! The Kino DVD of this features a great looking black and white print and nicely done piano score that helps enhance the tension in the film. A great silent film, well worth seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I definitely think that in 1929 Alfred Hitchcock was the director who
all young up and coming British directors aspired to. Saying that, I do
think, Anthony Asquith was majorly under-rated. It was the fashion to
put Asquith down as a major director, that after "A Cottage on
Dartmoor" his talent declined but even though his 30s output was
sparse, from "Pygmalion" on he started to deliver on the promise he
showed with "Shooting Stars" (1927). "Cottage to Let", "Fanny By
Gaslight", "The Way to the Stars", "The Browning Version" - all so
different yet superior in their own genres.
With an opening scene reminiscent of the moody atmospheric and expressionism of the then currently in vogue films coming out of Europe - the lowering skies, the stark leafless trees and the homeward bound cattle. Disturbing this tranquility is an escaped convict who runs to the shelter of a woman's cottage. In a very novel approach, as she recognises him and calls his name - "Joe" - the film returns to an earlier time, when he is a barber's assistant and Sally is the manicurist. Sally is flirtatious with the customers but not with Joe, who, in turn, is very interested in Sally but also very jealous. Joe is a lonely obsessive who interprets actions and looks with more meaning than they actually have. Sally invites Joe around to her boarding house for the evening and wears a flower he has given her - Joe is walking on air!! It is really Harry, a customer, that Sally is keen on and when he shows her pictures of a farm he has recently bought in Dartmoor, she, wanting security, marries him.
There is a extended sequence in a cinema ("My Woman" taken from a play by W. Shakespeare (that's what it says in the newspaper)!! preceded by Harold Lloyd - you catch on it's a Harold Lloyd movie by the way a small boy looks at the screen, looks at the man sitting next to him who has horn-rimmed glasses, then giggles to his mate). Much is made of going to a talking picture but the cinema has a small orchestra playing musical accompaniment. It is actually a great study of character as you look at everyone viewing the movie. It does a lot to further the narrative as Sally realises Harry is the man for her whereas Joe, who has purposely followed them to the pictures is slowly consumed by rage and jealousy. The film goes in another direction from the one you think.
Norah Baring didn't have a huge career but she did get to star in an early Hitchcock talkie, "Murder" along with Herbert Marshall. Uno Henning was a Swedish actor whom Asquith probably saw in "Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney" (1927) which was a very popular film directed by G. W. Pabst. After "A Cottage on Dartmoor" he returned to Sweden where he continued his career.
Highly, Highly Recommended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
During my childhood in the sixties and seventies silent films were
often shown on British television. These were invariably comedy shorts
starring the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or the Keystone
Kops and I was left with the impression that my grandparents'
generation only ever went to the cinema to be entertained by slapstick
comedy. This impression was, of course, quite erroneous and there were
plenty of full-length feature films on serious subjects made during the
silent era. "A Cottage on Dartmoor" was one of these. It was, in fact,
one of the last silents to be made in Britain, coming out in 1929, two
years after "The Jazz Singer" had launched the talking picture
revolution. The film actually makes reference to the coming of sound
and a key scene takes place when two characters go to the local cinema
to watch a "talkie".
The film opens with an escaped convict making his way across the bleak Dartmoor landscape. (The film is also known by the alternative title "Escape from Dartmoor"). He meets a young woman outside an isolated farmhouse and she, evidently taking pity on him, allows him into her home and offers him a hiding place. She exclaims his name, "Joe!" from which it is clear that these two already know each other. Their back-story is then told in flashback.
We learn that Joe was originally a barber and that the girl, whose name is Sally, worked alongside him as a manicurist in the same salon. At one time the two were dating one another, but Joe had a rival for Sally's affections in the shape of Harry, a local farmer and regular customer at the salon. During the above-mentioned scene in the cinema it becomes clear that Sally prefers Harry to Joe, and when Harry comes into the shop the following day an altercation between them leads to Harry being slashed by Joe's cut-throat razor. Joe is arrested, convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to imprisonment. The action then switches back to that Dartmoor cottage.
The silent cinema did have some advantages over the sound cinema; it could, for example, be more international. It seems that this was Chaplin's motivation for staying faithful to the silent medium; he wanted his films to be understood across the world, not just in English-speaking countries. Here only one of the three leads, Norah Baring, is British; Joe is played by the Swedish actor Uno Henning and Harry by the German Hans Schlettow. All three, in fact, are very good, having mastered the art of silent acting, which is something very different from conventional acting.
And yet, despite all the talents involved- not only the talents of the actors but also those of director Anthony Asquith and cameraman Stanley Rodwell- I could, watching the film, understand one of the reasons why silent and sound films could not coexist for long in the way in which, say, black-and-white movies managed to coexist with colour for around thirty years. Unlike physical comedy, strong emotions like love and jealousy are not really an ideal subject for silent film. When most people want to express their emotions they do so through speech. They do not act them out in dumb show. This applies even more strongly to actions motivated by mental reasoning than to those motivated by raw emotion. Emotions can to some extent be expressed though gestures and facial expressions- the cinema scene is a good example of this- but rational thoughts cannot.
Watching this film we are always aware that the actors and film-makers were working to overcome the limitations inherent in the silent form, and perhaps not always successfully. There are a number of points at which the meaning of the action is unclear. To what extent is Sally torn between her feelings for Joe and those for Harry? Does Joe deliberately try to kill Harry? Why do Sally and Harry attempt to assist Joe's escape from prison, even though one might have thought they have good reason to hate him? All of these matters could have been clarified by spoken dialogue.
It often happens that a particular class of object reaches its pinnacle of design just at the point where it is about to be made obsolete by technological change. Clipper ships like the "Cutty Sark" were masterpieces of design, as were Nigel Gresley's A4 Pacific railway engines, but all the skill which went into creating these objects could not prevent the sailing ship from giving way to the steamship or the steam locomotive to diesel and electric traction.
As it was in transport, so it was in the entertainment industry. A lot of skill went into creating films like "A Cottage on Dartmoor", and yet the silent film was doomed to give way to the talkie. (Asquith was to become one of Britain's leading directors of talking pictures). The critic Simon McCallum described the film as "a final, passionate cry in defence of the silent aesthetic in British cinema". I see it more as a requiem for the silent tradition. 7/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A Cottage on Dartmoor (or Escape from Dartmoor) (1929) is one of the
last British silent movies, and it's a great one. It's one of those
technically brilliant films which makes many a film nerd mourn the
death of silent film. There are barely any intertitles at all, yet it
eloquently tells its story of obsession and violence. The photography
is gorgeous, proto-noir in its use of light and shadow to suggest
danger and madness.
Unfortunately, the film is saddled with a ridiculous ending. While I'm all for redemption and characters having hidden dimensions, the protagonist's shift from crazy jealous would-be murderer to simpering, apologetic lover was jarring and poorly set up-- actually, it wasn't set up at all! I'm not saying it couldn't have been done, but it should have been set up earlier in the story. Otherwise, this is a fine film, borderline Hitchcockian in its feel and themes.
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