Streets of London
A new curated selection on Curzon12 highlights London’s role as one of the most iconic cinematic cities.
Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London. Probably the four major metropolises to be immortalised on film. Rome, Chicago, Vienna, Prague and Berlin – amongst many others – have also played a role, but those key four cities undoubtedly feature the most across the crowded landscape of cinematic cities.
The new Curzon12 programme picks for London films from different eras – the post-WWII era, the early 1960s and the present day – but it would be possible to pick any decade since a Lumière brothers film was screened at what is now Regent Street cinema in February 1896. Archive footage from the end of the 19th century has captured daily life on the city’s streets, as well as the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. But it was the sudden growth of small film companies in the city in 1920s that saw London become more visible cinematically.
Leading the vanguard was Alfred Hitchcock. His first masterpiece and thriller The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) made the city a character. While his later Blackmail (1929), filmed initially as a silent and then with sound, set its climax within and upon the roof of the old British Library. Hitchcock wasn’t alone in his fascination with the city. Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928), recently restored by the BFI, is as good a thriller as any of Hitchcock’s from the same period and makes the most of the claustrophobic setting as befitting its name. There was also E.A. Dupont’s fine Piccadilly (1929), hinting at a seamier side to London’s nightlife.
Hitchcock would employ the city as a backdrop throughout the 1930s, most notably using both the Royal Albert Hall and re-staging the famous 1911 Sidney Street Siege in his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). And then there’s the Music Hall sequence at the beginning of The 39 Steps (1935), although this was actually a sound stage at Lime Grove Studios at Shepherd’s Bush rather than one of the many extant music halls.
If Gainsborough Studios sometimes employed London as a backdrop to one of its bodice-ripping yarns of the 1940s, the city really came into its own in the post-war era in the series of hugely popular films produced by Ealing Studios. From Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets (both 1949) to The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955), where a bridge above a rail track in Kings Cross makes the perfect location for the film’s mordantly funny climax. Outside of their comedies, Ealing also produced the fine thriller Pool of London (1951), set in the docks of London’s East End.
The 1960s saw the city become one of the world’s fashion hotspots. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni arrived here to capture the zeitgeist with Blowup (1966). There was also The Pleasure Girls (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966), Here We Go Round the Mulbury Bush (1969), the opening scenes of The Italian Job (1969), earlier Michael Caine appearances in The Ipcress File (1965) and Alfie (1966), and Georgy Girl (1966). One of the most fascinating films of the period is the documentary The London Nobody Knows (1969), with James Mason giving a tour of some spots around the city. It plays out like a less formal, but equally playful precursor to Patrick Keillor’s wonderful London (1994).
The decades following the highpoint of the 1960s witnessed London in a bleaker mode. Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1969) paved the way, followed by 10 Rillington Place (1971), about the killer John Christie, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1971), the opening scenes of Get Carter (1971) and Alfred Hitchcock’s nastiest, penultimate film Frenzy (1972). John Wayne came over to the city to film the cop thriller Brannigan (1975), while Christopher Lee’s legendary vampire rose from the dead and into a contemporary setting for Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). Countless horror films have been set in the city, along with an even larger list of films that unfold throughout London’s history, from the Roman era of 1964’s Carry on Cleo and 2011’s The Eagle to a jump through history in Sally Potter’s delightful 1991 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
The bridge between the 1970s and Thatcherite ‘80s was the crime thriller The Long Good Friday (1980). Since then, we’ve had comedies as diverse as Withnail & I (1987), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Secrets and Lies (1996) and Attack the Block (2011). Nil by Mouth (1997) remains one of the finest dramas, alongside Naked (1993) and Wonderland (1999). But few other genres have profited as much from their London setting as crime thrillers. Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), Croupier (1998), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), The Bank Job (2008) and Trance (2013) all make the most of their locations.
Of the four films making up the latest Curzon12 selection, Andrew Hulme’s Snow in Paradise (2014) fits perfectly into the crime cannon. A portrait of a low-level criminal whose actions result in a tragedy, he turns to Islam for solace but his past soon returns to haunt him. It’s a novel take on the classic crime movie, whilst paying attention to the shifting social issues in the city.
A must for all who love noirish thrillers, Barnaby Southcombe's directorial debut I, Anna (2012) features a stellar cast, headed by Charlotte Rampling, Gabriel Byrne and the iconic presence of the Barbican complex and its imposing high-rise buildings. Rampling plays the titular character, who may hold the key to a murder investigation being conducted by Byrne's insomniac detective.
Terence Davies’ first and so far, only London-set film is an adaptations of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea (2011), a ménage-a-trois involving a restless young ex-pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain and now finds the mundanity of civilian life too much to bear, an older woman he has been seeing and is desperate to break away from, and her older husband, a respected judge. Davies opens up the chamber piece, while never losing any of the film’s intensity. And instead of filming on location, Davies offers a spirited evocation of London in the post-war period.
Finally, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa (2012) focuses on the burgeoning adulthood of two girls (played by Elle Fanning and Alice Englert) in the early 1960s. The film blends the personal, political and cultural as it melds a family breakdown with the events surrounding the Aldermaston March against nuclear weapons and conversations between writers and artists played by Alessandro Nivola (seen in Disobedience later this month), Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt. Amongst the fine cast, Christina Hendricks is outstanding as a mother on the brink of a breakdown. And Sally Potter’s script and direction perfectly capture a tumultuous moment in the life of a city that has come to be defined on the screen.
Curzon12: Streets of London is free to all Curzon members, available to stream now on Curzon Home Cinema.