Cinema Lovers will love this article and London lovers too. Today in Decor & Style we give you the 5 Best London-Set Movies Ever for you to enjoy each one.
1. “Oliver Twist” (1948)
One of the most oft-filmed tales in British cinema, Charles Dickens‘ “Oliver Twist” has never been better adapted than in David Lean‘s 1948 version (with musical take “Oliver!” and Roman Polanski‘s recent one the best known otherwise).
The director made his first masterpiece with another Dickens tale, “Great Expectations,” two years before, and while this can’t quite match it (principally because the source material isn’t as good), it’s in many ways more Dickensian, in part because of its depiction of the workhouses and streets of Victorian London so often associated with the author, which are likely still influential not just on retellings of this tale, but on all cinematic looks at London of the 1800s.
It looks stunning, with an almost Expressionist influence, thanks to DoP Guy Green, and the acting (including future pop star Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger) is strong across the board, not least from Alec Guinness, unrecognisable as Fagin. His performance attracted criticism as anti-Semitic at the time; the film wasn’t released until the U.S until 1951 as a result, and even then only heavily cut. But it’s much less of a caricature than Dickens’ original text, and seeing as the film was banned in Egypt for making Fagin too sympathetic, one suspects they were doing something right. That controversy aside, Lean still tells the story in as sleek and propulsive a manner as anyone ever has, and gives a definitive portrait of London in the process.
Tourist Trail: In Dickens’ novel, Fagin’s hang-out is in Saffron Hill, Farringdon. Obviously changed since the book was published, it’s now full of offices for the most part, but there’s a wealth of good restaurants and bars nearby if you do end up in the area.
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2.”It Always Rains On Sunday” (1947)
After this summer, Londoners will know that it doesn’t just always rain on Sunday, it always rains on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday too. But it’s nothing compared to the constant sheet of rain that accompanies the events of Robert Hamer‘s semi-forgotten classic, one of the best British films of its period, and perhaps the most convincing example of the London noir picture. Rose (the excellently-named Googie Withers) is an ordinary woman in Bethnal Green — not a stone’s throw from where the Olympic Stadium is now — not long married to an older man (Edward Chapman) with two teenage daughters, and struggling to get through the day in a post-war Britain still suffering from rationing. It’s all upended one Sunday when her first and truest love Tommy (John McCallum) appears after breaking out of prison.
Still in love with him, she hides him away, but the pressure gets greater and greater as the police and press close in, leading to tragic consequences for all. What’s most impressive about the film is the way that Hamer (who’d made his Ealing directorial debut with a segment of classic portmanteau horror “Dead Of Night,” and would next go on to helm the comedy classic “Kind Hearts & Coronets”) keeps the tension impossibly taut, even while expanding the world of the film wider and wider, bringing in more and more characters to paint a picture not just of this one family, but of the East End as well. It’s surprisingly realistic and uncompromising too, given the time period, and formally forward-looking, with flashbacks and a complex narrative structure. Of all the films on this list, we’d wager that this is the one you haven’t seen, which is an awful shame, but the Olympics seems as good an excuse as any to take another look.
Tourist Trail: The Bethnal Green area in which the film was set didn’t change for much of the 20th century, although like much of East London, it’s become something of a hipster hang-out of late. Our recommended stop would be the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, which, for the most part, is a traditional meeting and drinking spot that probably hasn’t changed much since the film’s day, although it now hosts club nights and film screenings in the evening, as well as hosting the cutting-edge comedy club Deansway’s in the basement.
3.”Passport To Pimlico” (1949)
A sort of comic flipside to the same kind of post-Blitz world seen in “It Always Rains On Sunday,” Ealing’s “Passport To Pimlico” has the kind of high concept that would make Hollywood executives today pull a muscle in the rush to reach for the checkbooks. A leftover bomb detonates in Pimlico (an area of central London next to Westminster), revealing a buried cellar full of treasure, along with a parchment that reveals that the land and the spoils belongs to the residents, under the Duke of Burgundy. As Burgundy no longer exists, Pimlico essentially becomes an independent nation within London, and one that isn’t subject to the same laws and rationing as the rest of Britain. This causes the government to become increasingly infuriated with the new duchy, breaking off relations, and cutting supplies and power.
All ends happily, but it’s a deceptively sharp and politically-minded film, dressed up as light comedy, with strong parallels to the then-current Berlin Blockade, and resonates with the bombardment of London that was only a few years gone, its scars still visible on the locations (actually shot in Lambeth, rather than Pimlico). Which is not to say that it’s dull or somber; it remains crowd-pleasing and genuinely funny, even if one suspects it played even better at the time. As far as films about London and Londoners go, it’s hard to find something more heartwarming or satisfying than this one. No one’s tried to remake it yet, but if it does ever have to happen, Joe Cornish is the man for the job.
Tourist Trail: Almost totally rebuilt and regenerated since the days of the film (aside from the impressive Regency-era houses that survived the bombings), Pimlico is a principally residential area, and as such isn’t likely to be on many tourist’s maps.
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If you are in the area, the Tate Britain, one of the best galleries in the city, is your best bet; it’s home to an exhibition on “London” director Patrick Keiller at present. Alternatively, the Queen Mother Sports Centre is this writer’s local gym, so you could come spot for us or something.
Polanski’s second film outside Poland, the director captured the alienation of a big city like London like the recent ex-pat that he was at the time. Often cited as a twisted inversion of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho,” “Repulsion” is an uncanny little shocker and the first film in Polanski’s so-called “apartment trilogy” (the later films being “The Tenant” and “Rosemary’s Baby”), which many point to as the most crucial cluster in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Here, the young, virginal Carole (played, with saucer eyes and sincerity, by a breathtaking Catherine Deneuve) is a Belgian immigrant, alone in the city and living in a Kensington flat, who works at a London nail salon, but slowly becomes more isolated and alone, to the point of becoming unhinged.
Polanski, using stark black-and-white photography a half-decade after “Psycho,” does a wonderful job of placing us in Deneuve’s psychological state, alternating calm moments with fits of paranoia, rage, fear, and outright hallucination (like the iconic sequence when the walls of her cramped apartment grow arms that grab at her). And if that doesn’t sway you, maybe the original tagline from the grabby poster will: “The nightmare world of a virgin’s dreams becomes the screen’s shocking reality!” (Exclamation point theirs.)
The film somehow found its way into the public domain dumping ground, and for a while you could only see it via dodgy DVD transfers, but thankfully those Criterion chaps came through and rescued it.
Tourist Trail: You can go and see Carole’s apartment, from the outside at least; it’s located at Kensington Mansions on Trebivor Road in Earl’s Court. Perhaps more importantly, you can still go get your nails done at the beauty parlor in which she worked in the film: it’s called Thurloe’s, on Thurloe Place in South Kensington.
Cities are always documented by best by outsiders, so it’s not surprising that the most vital looks at Swinging Sixties London, the time when the city was the very centre of the world, came from non-natives, whether it was Joseph Losey‘s “Modesty Blaise” or Richard Lester‘s “The Knack… And How To Get It.” But most seminal of all is undoubtedly Michelangelo Antonioni‘s formally playful anti-thriller “Blow-Up.” With a central character inspired by Carnaby St. icon David Bailey, and cameos from Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck among others, it’s certainly an icon of its time, but it’s also an almost impossibly innovative and brilliant film away from all of that.
The owl-eyebrowed David Hemmings plays Thomas, a fashion photographer who takes a photo of a woman and her lover, only to realize he might have accidentally captured evidence of a murder. The plotting, such as it is, is thin, but due to the film’s existential ennui, epitomized most by the brilliant ending, it never really goes anywhere. Antonioni might be appropriating the imagery of the time, and even inventing a sort of visual language to match it, but he’s never enamored by swinging London (the director was, after all, well into his 50s when it was made), almost always painting it as a bleak and deeply unhappy place.
Only when Thomas has his camera in his hands is he truly alive. It’s impossible to underestimate the influence of “Blow-Up;” it became a monster hit, bringing down the Production Code, and causing the creation of the MPAA in the process, and perhaps more importantly, led the way for the European influence on Hollywood, from “Bonnie & Clyde” to serving as a direct inspiration for films like “The Conversation” and “Blow Out.”
Tourist Trail: “Blow-Up” shot all over London, but Thomas’ photography studio was leased from real-life snapper Jon Cowan for interiors and exteriors. It’s at 39 Princes Place in Holland Park and is now an office.
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