Released the year England entered the sound age with Hitchcock’s Blackmail, the silent A Cottage on Dartmoor displays a wealth of sophisticated visual idiom. Director Anthony Asquith, better known for his later, stodgy, illustrated-classics pictures (Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest), works here with imagery freewheeling enough to accommodate experiments both in composition (as in an early shot where a character dashes from background to foreground until he steps on a puddle and splashes the lens) and editing (a gabby man is casually intercut with a clucking hen). It’s typical of the film’s inventiveness that the flashback that makes up the bulk of the narrative is precipitated by the first intertitle. The story is a nimble romance bracketed by gloomy melodrama: Joe (Uno Henning) escapes from prison to seek out Sally (Norah Banning), the woman he loved and lost; the earlier courtship at the beauty salon where they both worked is played lightly, though of course darkened by our knowing that the obsessive Joe will be eventually convicted of attempted murder. Usually a slave to his bookish sources, Asquith keeps title cards to a minimum while imposing a variety of rhythms on his camerawork; fittingly, his most elaborate bit of montage takes place inside a movie theater, where the talkie playing on-screen is wittily reflected in the faces of audience members, including the future victim of Joe’s jealousy (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) and Asquith himself in a Hitch-like cameo. Ultimately less than the sum of its parts, the film is nevertheless an engaging glimpse into a largely ignored period that may still hold many surprises. Where else, after all, can you find an impending crime punctuated with footage from a cricket match?
The negative shows its age in parts, but the restored print for the most part does justice to the film's visual bravura. Stephen Horne's piano score is pleasingly mercurial.
Silent British filmmaking may be a subject for further research, but David Thompson's 88-minute documentary Silent Britain goes a long way in shedding some light on it. Including interviews with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and critics such as Ian Christie, as well as a priceless collection of clips, Thompson makes a strong case for Britain's early cinematic period as not simply "a whole other world," but also as one to be mined for forgotten gems like A Cottage on Dartmoor.
An engaging amalgam of romance, murder, and cricket matches.