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August 21, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)


Director Anthony Asquith had most notably directed classics such as Pygmalion (1938), The Winslow Boy (1948), The Browning Version (1951), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) but he got an early and tremendous start with the late silent A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). He delivers a noirish-looking psychological/revenge drama that’s atmospheric at times and just plain mesmerizing throughout.

The film opens on a stormy night and depicts a creepy landscape that embodies film noir’s visual standards. We then follow a prisoner who is on the run. He spots a cottage on the horizon and enters it. Inside a mother tends to her infant child and as she comes down the stairs she spots the prisoner standing in a darkened corner. She takes notice of his eyes and yells out, “Joe!”

Then we jump-cut to a well lit shot of a well-groomed, handsome barber’s assistant as he responds with, “Yes Sally?” That technique of jump cutting was popularized in the late 1950s, early 1960s; A Cottage on Dartmoor was way ahead of its time. Within the film’s first five minutes we witness a jump-cut that leads into a flashback, film noir style lighting and shadow-play. Not a single word was uttered until the film was ready to begin telling the audience who Joe and Sally are and why Joe escaped prison to see her.

The story is very simplistic and can be summarized in a single paragraph, but I’ll see what I can do make it last a tad longer: Joe (Uno Henning) trims and styles men’s hair in a barbershop and Sally (Norah Baring) offers manicures. Joe’s in love with Sally but the feeling is not entirely mutual. He sometimes provides her with flowers, and one time he asks her out to watch a “talkie”. She accepts his offer but only because he looked sad at having to go home at the end of the night to an empty house. But after realizing that he’d dropped the tickets earlier in the day the potential date at the movies becomes them sitting in the lobby of her boarding-house.

One day, a farmer named Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) enters the barbershop and immediately falls in love with Sally. She flirts with him right in front of Joe and as it ends up, Harry returns to receive many haircuts and manicures. Harry and Sally eventually date and one day he proposes marriage to her. He tells her that he’d just purchased a cottage on Dartmoor and places a ring on her finger. But when Joe sees that ring and Harry’s farmer hands fiddling with it he enters a quiet rage and as he shaves Harry he realizes that he’s holding a weapon in his hands.

Uno Henning has big, striking eyes and as Joe he delivers a sometimes tender but mostly frightening performance, filled with rage and passion. Joe hates seeing Sally fall for a commoner who works on a farm, and most importantly he hates being ignored by her. According to the rulebook he’s not a sociopath but the actions that place him in prison (as foretold in the film’s intro) aren’t calculated, as he performs a crime of passion. I will not explain the details of the crime because what happens in the film’s third act is not what one thinks would happen.

Norah Baring has thin but remarkably animated eyebrows and with great assistance from her pretty eyes, they help her to define her character. Baring and Henning deliver passionate performances, often riddled with acting traits that are found in German Expressionist films, but they also play their parts with realism rather than using over-exaggerated motions.

Henning is the real star here as he delivers a Buster Keaton-like performance, but instead of portraying the great stone face he portrays true anger and hatred throughout most of the film. The character of Joe greatly reminds me of the character of Sweeney Todd (although Joe’s not as psychotic as Sweeney Todd) and while revisiting this film I had begun to wish that a black and white, noir-like film of Sweeney Todd existed. Perhaps one or more do exist; if so, I shall have to seek them out.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is a landmark because it utilizes film noir style visuals, pre-WWII; Eisenstein-style editing techniques that feature montage and rapid editing when needed; and magnificent, concentrated performances by the two leads. It had the freedom to utilize those techniques masterfully and sparingly because the film came out before the talkies had taken over the world of the moving pictures.

Asquith is a good film director and he has a few masterpieces under his belt, and you know what they say, having even one masterpiece in a career is truly remarkable. A Cottage on Dartmoor may be Asquith’s greatest film and it definitely needs to be rediscovered.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is available on DVD from Kino. There’s only one extra on the DVD, but it’s a big extra: the feature length documentary Silent Britain.

New releases this week: Bernie, The Dictator, A Separation