The Hendersonville Film Society starts off the new year with something truly remarkable, Anthony Asquith’s late silent film A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Made when most movies were turning to sound (characters in the film even go to the “talkies”), the film is a stylistic revelation for anyone who thinks of Asquith as a fairly uninteresting filmmaker. This film has style to burn and feels very much ahead of its time, despite being a silent (and being cursed with a sometimes-annoying piano score in place of the apparently lost original music track).
The story—from Asquith’s scenario adapted from a book—isn’t very exciting. Instead, it’s unsubtle melodramatic nonsense with flashes of pretty peculiar psychology, but the way the material is presented is nothing short of remarkable.
The film boldly starts in mid-story with a convict, Joe (Swedish actor Uno Henning), on the run from Dartmoor Prison. He makes his way to a cottage where he comes face-to-face with Sally (Norah Baring), who immediately recognizes him, at which point the film flashes back to an earlier time when he was a barber and she was a manicurist in London. The flashback (which also contains flashbacks and fantasies) makes up the bulk of the movie, with the story of Joe’s obsessive love for Sally and how that love is thwarted by merest chance driving Joe to attempt a Sweeney Todd on Sally’s fiancé, Harry (German actor Hans Schlettow), when he has him in his barber chair. The presentation here is everything. The camerawork and the editing (some as rapid as anything in modern film) are eye-opening to such a spectacular degree that the melodrama scarcely matters. A must-see for anyone interested in the history of film.