Friday, 1 February 2013

My favourite "London" movies: extremely violent, deeply creepy and very funny

I don’t know if it says more about me or the city I’ve lived in for most of the past 54 years, but the films which for me seem best to capture the essence of London are either extremely violent, deeply creepy or very funny - or a mixture of all three. If I lived in Paris, say, it would be easy to choose one movie that sums up the spirit of the city – Les Enfants du Paradis. But with London, it’s not so simple: for a start, two of my favourites are largely set in other parts of Britain. But I'll give it a go: here, in no particular order, is a selection that seems to collectively capture the city's essence.

I'll start with one of the creepiest. Peeping Tom was the film that so repulsed critics that it ended Michael Powell's glittering directorial career when it was released in 1960. But this tale of a homicidal cinematographer captured the city's seedy glamour:

Well, that was fun!

The French Embassy is the setting for the 1948 masterpiece, The Fallen Idol, written by Graham Greene and directed by the great Carol Reed. Ralph Richardson gives his greatest screen performance as Baines, the embassy butler, but Sonia Dresdel as his ratbag wife (on whom he's cheating), and Bobby Henrey, who plays the ambassador's son, are equally effective: in fact, Henrey is so accomplished, that he and Richardson share the acting honours. At the start of this clip, the little boy, whose request to go out for a walk  has just been turned down, tells Mrs. Baines exactly what he thinks of her:

I knew something of the atmosphere of London embassies by the time I saw The Fallen Idol on television when I was about nine or ten, because my father worked in the Norwegian equivalent at the time - but it was a far humbler affair than the one in the film.

The setting for the 1938 adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion was also distinctly upmarket. The dialogue is wonderful, and Wendy Hiller gives one of the greatest comic performances in cinema. The ten minute segment which starts at 37' 30" is particularly magnificent.

1947 saw Ealing Studios release two classic London films, Hue and Cry and It Always Rains on Sunday. The first (generally considered to be the first Ealing comedy) isn't that great - a bunch of working class kids expose a criminal gang - but as a slice of social history, it's hard to beat, especially as much of it was filmed in city streets before the rubble had been removed:

There isn't anything on YouTube worth showing from It Always Rains on Sunday, in which Googie Withers' criminal hubby escapes from prison and turns up at their pokey Bethnal Green two-up two-down - but it's an atmospheric, chuckle-free slice of social realism.

A cramped terraced house - this time in Notting Hill (before the bankers moved in) - is the main setting for the 1971 film of Ludovic Kennedy's book about the Christie murders - 10 Rillington Place. Richard Attenborough is pant-wettingly creepy as the serial killer, and John Hurt, in his first screen role, is excellent as Timothy Evans. London's polyglot nature is demonstrated by the fact that Christie was from Yorkshire, Evans from Wales, and that the family who first discovered the bodies were West Indian immigrants. If you're of a sensitive disposition, I really wouldn't watch the following selection of scenes - the cosy phrase "nice little cup of tea" will never seem quite the same again:

Gosh, that's horrible!

Another terraced house is at the heart of 1955's The Ladykillers. It's a comic tour de force, but, in its own way, a fascinating glimpse of mid-fities London - there's a Hungarian in the gang (Louie), a nod towards refugees from the war and Communism, a teddy boy (played by Peter Sellers) and one of those wonderfully twittery, genteel old English ladies just managing to keep their heads above water:

There's another creepy Northerner in Jospeh Losey's 1963 slice of overwrought weirdness, The Servant, where posh boy James Fox finds his life being taken over by his sinister gentleman's gentleman, Dirk Bogarde:

Richard Burton plays gay gangster Vic Dakin in 1971's Villain, an underated classic which strikes me as the progenitor (along with Get Carter) of numerous TV series (The Sweeney and Out for a start) and any number of later films, usually starring Ray Winstone:

I generally avoid films dealing with the gritty underbelly of vibrant, multicultural London housing estates - but 2009's Harry Brown, in which an old soldier, played by Michael Caine, goes after the young drug-dealing thugs who beat his only pal to death, is an exception:

How anything this Dirty Harry-ish managed to get left-wing lottery funding is beyond me - but I'm glad it did.

The city portrayed in Harry Brown isn't that far removed from the one created by Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick in 1971's A Clockwork Orange (minus the guns, the classical music, the borrowings from Russian and the make-up, of course). Stand by for some ultraviolence:

I thought about including Blow Up and Performance, but I'm pretty sure late-1960s London was more accurately captured in the 1987 cult classic, Withnail & I, which boasts one of the best comic scripts ever written, and any number of outsanding comedy performances. The following scene reminds me of why - apart from the smoking and the drinking - I've always loathed pubs:

The above scene takes place before the two eponymous heroes go on holiday "by mistake" in Wales (where much of the film is set). Here, they return to Withnail's London home only to discover that their drug dealer and one of his chums have taken up residence there:

Finally, my favourite London movie - actually, probably my favourite movie of all time - Alfred Hitchock's The 39 Steps. Yes, most of it involves debonair Richard Hannay whizzing around the Highlands, but the first 20 minutes of the film show 1930s London from an exceptionally sharp-eyed native's point of view; the music hall scene (Mr. Memory and "what causes pip in poultry?"), with it's big, raucous, boozy, rambunctious audience, lasts for just over six minutes, but, in odd way, you feel you know the city by the end of it - I suspect because the director was simply trying to tell a daft adventure story rather than trying to capture the spirit of the place:

None of these films deals with the aspects of London I actually know and love. Many of them deal with aspects I actually loathe. But, taken as a whole, they somehow capture a city which I'd probably now view quite differently if I hadn't seen them.


  1. "He's had more drugs than you've had hot breakfasts"


    I've got to find Peeping Tom...that is really brilliant. The act and then the screening of the act. The fact that our only view of the act is the filming of it, then the screening of it...removing the illusion of omniscience for the audience and forcing you into the killers head.

    The focus on the garbage can was great.

    I may have to thumb through Netflix tonight...cursing netflix to follow shortly.

  2. Good luck with Netflix - my brother swears by Lovefilm, but I haven't progressed past Sky On Demand.

    Of course, many critics hated Psycho - sick, twisted, evil etc. - when it was released, but it wasn't as if Hitchcock hadn't toyed with psychological horror before. In Powell's case, Peeping Tom was so unexpected, so shockingly unlike any of his previous movies, the critics didn't know how to react, and that made them angry and vengeful. Psycho was a great popular success because - despite everything - Hitchcock, Anthony Perkins and the script sort of made us root for Norman Bates, but there's nothing remotely likable about Powell's killer.

  3. Some candidates for your three categories:

    Violence. The Blue Lamp [1950]. The first incarnation of Jack Warner as PC George Dixon. Great scenes of a shabby Paddington and White City.

    Creepy. Victim [1961]. The treatment of homosexuality when it was still illegal and regarded with horror.

    Funny. Wrong Arm of the Law [1963]. The London underworld gangs up with the police to fight off a team of Australian criminals. Stars famous Norwegian actor Tutte Lemkow as "Ziggie Schmoltz".

    Three wonderful British films.