'A Cottage on Dartmoor': Anthony Asquith Surprising 'Brilliant Thriller'

A Cottage on Dartmoor / Escape from Dartmoor with Uno Henning.

Very little in a career overview of filmmaker Anthony Asquith prepares a viewer for the brilliant thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor, released by Kino (website), which he both wrote (from a story by Herbert Price) and directed. Asquith's wonderful but straightforward adaptations of Pygmalion (1938) and The Browning Version (1951) – and, to a lesser extent, The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) and Libel (1959) – do not really speak to the dynamics of this 1929 film.

The director fully embraces the tale of obsessive love in terms of silent moviemaking by using visual flourishes to heighten tension and mood in the story, while also provoking the audience to interact with what takes place on screen. Indeed, A Cottage on Dartmoor nearly breaks down the fourth wall at various moments, placing its audience in the same dire circumstances experienced by the central female character, Sally.

Sally (Norah Baring) is a manicurist who works in a salon alongside Joe (Uno Henning), an assistant. Joe has a hankering for Sally and in a move of compassion, she accepts his request for a date though she is uninterested in this awkward young man. Turns out, this is a poor move. Joe's longing turns violent once Sally becomes involved with Harry (Hans Schlettow). Things get messy. There will be blood.

The love triangle is simple enough, but quite compelling in that the true intentions of all three players are never explicitly presented. In particular, Sally's motivations are quite twisted, which makes poor, unstable Joe almost sympathetic. She is just not that into Joe. Or is she? Sally is initially repulsed, but later her actions indicate otherwise. The evil in Joe is likewise complicated, not absolute, while Harry's willingness to be twisted by love creates a friction driven not only by anger but by compassion in the final third of the film.

In the narrative construction of A Cottage on Dartmoor (above, Hans Schlettow and Norah Baring), Asquith employs the dependable standby device and the bookend flashback. (This is one of my least favorite approaches in all of cinema, but it works fluidly here.) The opening flashback is quick; the audience is thrown into a dark and uncertain scenario only to be catapulted with the simplest (and cleverest) of edits backwards into time. The film is packed with similar visual goodies and the economy of filmmaking found in this moment runs throughout; thus, A Cottage on Dartmoor feels grandiose even as it remains simple.

For instance, Asquith creates a startling atmosphere of suffocation on the date between Sally and Joe in a single sitting room. Camera angles, quick cuts, and varying frame ratios combine with an intricate choreography of players in and around a piano and a mirror. As a result, a strange human cage in which the off-balance suitor stalks the young woman is created. This pursuit is primal and thoroughly unnerving. The joy Asquith must have had in its construction registers remarkably well onscreen.

A Cottage on Dartmoor

Another fantastic set piece is the attack of Joe upon Harry, which immediately calls to mind Sweeney Todd. It is a no-brainer that the story is careening toward this moment, yet the surprise comes in the intensity and imagination of its depiction here.

As an aside, A Cottage on Dartmoor must have influenced Alfred Hitchcock. There is an explosive moment that is repeated almost verbatim in Spellbound. Asquith even takes a cameo a la Hitch and Joe can be considered an early form of Norman Bates. Also of note is the sly, humorous manner in which Asquith addresses the new technology of talking pictures.

'Talkies' are almost a demented joke in A Cottage on Dartmoor, with an interrupted trip to a sound film setting off a disturbing series of events ('Talkies' equal death of cinema as art!). Later, another trip to the theater leads to a haunting sequence in which the onscreen theatergoers watch the viewers of this film. It is a reflexive moment as exceptionally executed as the film in total and prods a cineaste to reexamine Anthony Asquith, so great and so much in control here.

Photos: Courtesy Kino International

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Dir.: Anthony Asquith. Scr.: Anthony Asquith; from a story by Herbert Price. Cast: Norah Baring, Uno Henning, Hans Schlettow.

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