Moorland Suspense: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)


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“The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm. When you are once out upon its bosom you have left all traces of modern England behind you, but on the other hand, you are conscious everywhere of the homes and the work of prehistoric people. On all sides of you as you walk are the houses of these forgotten folk, with their graves and the huge monoliths which are supposed to have marked their temples. As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hillsides you leave your own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door, fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that the presence there was more natural than your own.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

I thought of these lines from The Hound of the Baskervilles (my favorite of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels) while watching A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Anthony Asquith’s silent film begins with the introduction of a wild looking man (Uno Henning) as he scampers like a scared rabbit across the English moors. He is clad in a frayed prison uniform and a mop of untamed hair rests uneasily on his head. As his feral eyes searched the bleak landscape I began to wonder: Was he hunting something or was he being hunted?

The man eventually arrives at the cottage of the film’s title but instead of knocking on the door he sneaks inside and hides among the shadows. His slender and agile frame disguises a ferocious nature that emerges when he’s spotted by one of the cottage occupants; a beautiful young mother (Norah Baring) who responds to his presence with astonishment and fear. He is not welcome there and his disheveled appearance and nervous manner suggest he is not welcome anywhere. Before viewers can make sense of the mysterious man’s arrival at the cottage and what it might mean, we are plunged back in time to witness a series of unfortunate events that led to this suspense filled encounter.

A Cottage on Dartmoor is the last silent film directed by Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion [1938], The Winslow Boy [1948], The Importance of Being Earnest [1952]) and the first of his silents that I’ve had the opportunity to see. The film’s unassuming title, along with the director’s other output, suggested that A Cottage in Dartmoor might be a pastoral drama about life in rural Britain but nothing could be further from the truth. This atypical British thriller has much more in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s early films such as The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929).

Asquith’s film centers around an impassioned love triangle involving a barber named Joe (the mysterious moor man, Uno Henning) and a manicurist called Sally (the previously mentioned Norah Baring). Joe is smitten with Sally but his aggressive personality leaves her cold. When Sally begins dating a mild-mannered farmer (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), Joe can’t contain his jealousy and begins stalking the couple. Joe’s resentment quickly consumes him and when Sally’s new beau visits the barber shop, Joe threatens to kill the man while giving him a close shave with a straight razor. As tension mounts and tempers run high, Joe’s razor slips and he slices the man’s throat. Was it a crime of passion or merely an unfortunate accident?

A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Uno Henning, 1929, acod1929-fsc-fsct02, Photo by:Everett Collection(acod1929-

The crime unfolds in a dramatic montage sequence of furious images and for a brief moment, the innocuous salon is transformed into a Grand Guignol theatre. We get close-ups of dazzling razors being finely sharpened while bottles of expensive colognes and hair tonics spill onto the floor. Hanging mirrors frame all the action reflecting and distorting the events as they happen making it difficult to pinpoint a single culprit amid the chaos.

This is just one impressive scene of many in A Cottage on Dartmoor, which also features haunting footage of the gloomy fog-shrouded moorland at twilight. One particularly inventive sequence takes place inside a movie theater where patrons are watching films accompanied by an orchestra. We are asked to participate in the crowd’s enjoyment as they laugh and cry at the appropriate moments while members of the orchestra look on with detached bemusement.

For decades Anthony Asquith was deemed a “dull, journeyman supervisor of the transfer to the screen of proven theatrical properties” (David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film) but A Cottage on Dartmoor (not made widely available until its DVD release in 2007) suggests that the British filmmaker was most comfortable working in the realm of silent cinema. The “talkies” seemed to constrain Asquith’s imagination and limit the scope of his vision. He began relying too much on script and the formalization of his later films often makes them resemble well-acted photoplays instead of dynamic moving pictures. Even his big-budget Hollywood films, which includes star-studded vehicles such as The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), lack the vitality that the aloof material demands. They’re lovely celebrity photo ops but they are by-the-numbers movies.

I’m looking forward to catching up with more of Asquith’s silent films and recommend making some time for A Cottage on Dartmoor while it’s streaming on FilmStruck as part of their “Directed by Anthony Asquith” theme. It proves that the British filmmaker was much more than just a “dull, journeyman” whose work deserves to be reconsidered instead of confined to the sidelines of Britain’s cinematic history.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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2 Responses Moorland Suspense: A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)
Posted By Mitch Farish : August 31, 2017 11:59 pm

Great film! Shows the German influence that pervaded the best of British cinema in the ’20s. Several of the cast members were imports from Germany, including Swedish actor Uno Henning, who also starred in G. W. Pabst’s Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney. See that film to see where Hitchcock earned his chops as a director.

Back to Cottage on Dartmoor, the theater scene is a brilliant send-up of the poor quality of early talkies. The crowd doesn’t like the talkie, but they love the Harold Lloyd silent. Another intense scene is the shaving scene in the barber shop. The entire film is a tribute to what visual story-telling (the silent style) did best, even as they were fading into oblivion.

Posted By swac44 : September 5, 2017 8:19 am

For those who still have a yen for physical media, the Kino DVD of A Cottage on Dartmoor (whose title was changed to the more thriller-specific Escape From Dartmoor for North American audiences) comes with the BFI doc Silent Britain. The doc is an effort to counter the opinion in some circles that British silent films weren’t up to the standards set by international counterparts, and show that there’s more to them than Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Asquith’s Underground is cited (available separately from the BFI) and the superb working class drama Hindle Wakes, among many others. Definitely a great primer on a silent cinema that is rarely accessible to viewers on North American shores.

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