You would have to present it as a time-lapse evolution saga: something dark, stirring and momentous, possibly set to Wagner. Both on screen and in history London has had the same story. Out of the dark and fog grows something sprawling and illimitable. Slowly the city leaves the murky Thames and Thameside – the town’s first “landmark” and early filmdom’s favourite haunt – and spreads outward, gathering light, detail, humanity.
Like early creatures leaving the sea on their way to becoming homo sapiens, London rises up as well as spreading wide. Each new pinnacle added to the old ones – Nelson’s Column, Big Ben – is the triumph of aspiration over murk and mire. Today’s Londoners can barely get through a year, as city marches to sky, without a new tower asserting the new phallocracy: Lloyd’s, the Gherkin, the Shard …
Evolution nice or evolution nasty? How have London and its story been celebrated – or demonised – on the big screen?
Celebrants have liked to push the idea of a city built on history, pageantry, nobility. Costume pictures; London-set romances or romantic comedies; biopics of the great or famous. From Queen Elizabeth I (The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth) to Queen Victoria (Sixty Glorious Years), from King George VI (The King’s Speech) to Queen Elizabeth II (The Queen), the cinema of Heritage London – born between two world wars as a rallying call to patriotism and still going strong today – has made handsome the middlebrow of movie history.
The lower brow has been loveable knockabout comedy – from Ealing arts to Carry Ons – and lightweight capers and thrillers. Even some heavier-weight action movies. Neglect at your peril London’s popularity as a stop-off point for blockbuster franchises. Mission: Impossible breezed colourfully through the British capital before climaxing in the Channel tunnel. Star Tom Cruise (who lately rebooted London’s screen cred with Edge of Tomorrow) promises to return in Mission: Impossible 5. More recently Thor: The Dark World created mayhem in the skies above Greenwich.
For the highbrow, though – for a cinema that goes a little beyond fun and knockabout (or grace and heritage) – it is best to return to our beginning. That picture we opened with. London as the home of film noir. London as that mysterious, macabre urban mass positioned – with such choice and perilous allure – between continental Europe and America. London as a black hole in the space between continental giants; between Europe’s old-world culture and America’s demotic brashness. Stray near the event horizon of this city, with its mass of gravity fed from the outfall of rival stars, and you will probably be sucked in for ever.
It has been a home to horror, crime, murder, poverty, financial intrigue and corruption. That’s on a good day. “Lovely!” we hear the “noirists” breathe – in the fruity, mischief-loving drawl of Alfred Hitchcock. He made his home town legendary from his first toddling steps in a toddling early cinema. The Lodger (1927), full of fog, darkness and Jack the Ripper; Blackmail (1929); Sabotage (1936), from Joseph Conrad’s London-eerie The Secret Agent. Hitch’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was also set in the city. It incorporated a fictive riff on a famous headline event, the siege of Sidney Street, a drawn-out, murderous stand-off between police and anarchists that defined the tinder volatility of between-wars Britain.
And think of David Lean. The London of his first Dickens movie, Great Expectations (1946), may not be unduly dystopian – a big, bustling place where a young chap makes his fortune – but everyone remembers the London of his second film. In Oliver Twist (1948) the city is a nightmare in black and white. A twisty maze, a cauldron of intrigue, iniquity and inequality and where a request for more soup is nearly a hanging offence; where Bill Sikes murders his Nancy amid the grisly Victorian hovels. Heritage England with a difference.
Black hole movies can even have colour and costumes. Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1955), spurning or turning topsy-turvy the picture-book pageantry of his Henry V, is a designer maelstrom of evil. London is a whirling universe governed by kingly maleficence. Everything and everyone is sucked by turn towards the black heart of Olivier’s demon monarch.
In a black hole no one can hear you scream. No one can even quite see what you are doing.
London is so big, with so many nooks and crannies, shadows and alleys, that the place is treacherous even in broad daylight. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tax-incentivised heyday for overseas filmmakers, Hitchcock came to Britain from his adoptive Hollywood to make Frenzy (1972) and Michelangelo Antonioni came from Italy to make Blow-Up (1966). Both films feature murder or mortality in plain sight: a death in a London park, a body floating on the Thames. Both films say of London: it is not just a city but a virtual country in miniature. So vast; so labyrinthine; so miraged with waterways and parklands which offer mendacious oases in the big, dense, noisy urban desert.
Of course, some movies about the British capital, in every decade, have been defiant: upbeat and up-tempo. “Swinging London”, in nearly the same epoch as Frenzy and Blow-Up, danced around town to the tunes of Darling, The Knack … and How to Get It and Georgy Girl. Sometimes a monster city is a fun place to get lost in – or to lose one’s inhibitions in.
But the glossiness of the Swinging Sixties did not stick. Or perhaps it did and became the wrong kind of gloss: meretricious, materialistic, money-mad … On either side of the 2007 financial crisis, London’s identity as a business hub has added Mammon to the mix of malignities. In Rogue Trader (1999), based on the Nick Leeson story, a famous London bank, unable to avoid its own mutation into a black hole, fields bulletins from a Briton bankrupting it in Singapore. In Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005), a callow English go-getter (Jonathan Rhys Myers) moves up the storeys of ambition and perfidy. The former Swiss Re building – or Gherkin – gets its best screen workout to date. A monster glass torpedo, teeming with greed and self-interest, pointing straight towards hell and Planet Hubris.
In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) Hollywood too went to London. In the rocky wake of the banking crisis it sought, for fugitive Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a home from home among the gleaming high-rises.
You cannot get away from the new megaliths in the new metropolis. They are modern man’s version of the mystery slab in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. They beckon us towards an unknown, thrilling, perilous future. They say, “Come on, dare! Touch, explore, climb.” If it all began with Big Ben – that 150-year-old gothic clock tower that may have been in more movies than any phallic symbol in the world (Gorgo, The 39 Steps, Mars Attacks!, The Avengers … ) – it is having its mayhem consummation today. Blame Lords Rogers, Foster and co. Or blame the society that isn’t content with horizontal spread but wants, over and over, the thrill of the vertical.
Is there any fiercer sight in the architectural world than the Shard, London’s tallest building? The tower is new, its screen history to date humble. Mainly a 2013 Doctor Who episode in which the time-travelling Doc soars in an anti-gravity car up the side of the giant glass dagger. Yet the Shard, like all its kind, can expect a big future as a multitasking movie location. The name alone is irresistible. Shard. Shard of glass. But also short for Schadenfreude? Delight in darkness and doom? Horror, anxiety, foreboding as pleasure sources?
Back to that black hole, voluptuous with the unknown, rich with the accreted and secreted. The British capital’s days as a great singularity continue unbound and unbounded. Be careful where you park your space/time ship. If it’s on the edge of this sombre turbulence that calls itself London, you may not see it again, nor yourself if you were in it.
An East End education
Leytonstone High Road’s workaday newsagents and chicken shops seem miles from the glamour of Hollywood, but it was here that director Alfred Hitchcock grew up and found his first influences, writes Feargus O’Sullivan.
It was apparently a local constable, locking him briefly in a cell for naughtiness at his father’s request, who created the director’s lifelong fear of policemen and fascination with false accusation.
Despite Hitchcock’s move to the US, his reputation has left behind traces in the form of Topaz Court and Marnie Court, two blocks of flats named after his films.