Gangsters, ruffians, villains. The disenfranchised, harangued and abandoned. These are the rightful vanguards of an art tailored, more than any other, to the masses. For cinema-lovers everywhere, crime has forever been a thing of romance, of melodrama, of dramatic lighting and of righteous vendettas. We know the story: the rise and fall of self-made entrepreneurs, exploiters of unforgiving environs muscling against the establishment – only to be caught out, eventually, by the very fabric of city life. Because crime today is closely linked to the internal structures of urban development, criminals are often empathetic creatures: they’re one of us, and their heightened tragedy finds its spectacular roots in the quotidian squalor of life at the bottom.
As cinema developed, so too did the urban centres of the world – and London, like all great cinematic cities, has never been too far away from crime. From Rogues of London (1915), one of the 300 or so films Bert Haldane directed between 1910 and 1922, to Steven Knight’s beautifully shot Hummingbird (2012), the city boasts a rich heritage of crime films. Even Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, two great veterans not ordinarily associated with the crime genre, have inevitably found themselves brushing up against it – Leigh with the likes of Meantime (1983) and Naked (1993), Loach with the likes of 3 Clear Sundays (1965) and It’s a Free World… (2007).
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Indeed, it’s no coincidence that many of the most memorable masterpieces set in London – a sprawling and shadowy land of opportunity, where Delboy and Rodney Trotter can be as loved as Ronnie and Reggie Kray – have dealt in some way with crime. On film, London crime is a thing of laughter (The Ladykillers), of suspense (Bunny Lake Is Missing), of sleaze (The Small World of Sammy Lee), of compulsion (Peeping Tom), of mystery (The Arsenal Stadium Mystery), of paranoia (Face), of curiosity (Blowup), and of harrowing truths (10 Rillington Place) and fanciful fictions (RocknRolla). When dealing with such side economies and general milieus from the other side of the law, it also makes for good television (The Sweeney, Dixon of Dock Green, The Bill).
But it’s The Long Good Friday that perhaps best exemplifies the London crime film. Released in 1980, John Mackenzie’s terrific film sees a fierce Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand, an East End gangster hoping to go legit by exploiting the UK’s declining manufacturing industry and its rise in property development. As Iain Sinclair puts it in Lights out for the Territory:
The Long Good Friday, like Performance before it, by plunging recklessly into the profane stew of London, defined its moment; being, by temperament, both analytic and prophetic – making intelligent withdrawals from John Pearson’s Kray document, The Profession of Violence, and also anticipating the hubris of Canary Wharf. The genius of the film lay in its ability to satirise events that had not yet occurred.”
The upcoming reissue of Mackenzie’s era-defining (and newly restored) film – presented from 19 June as a precursor to the BFI’s major London on Film season – gives us occasion to look at 10 other great crime films that manage to encapsulate small portions of London’s underbelly…
Director: E.A. Dupont
E.A. Dupont’s second UK film, following the previous year’s Moulin Rouge, is a tellingly intercontinental affair (produced by British International Pictures), for which the German-born director served up a headily sophisticated dish of expressionism while drawing upon the revelatory charisma of his Chinese-American star Anna May Wong to depict a central London that puts the toxic into intoxicating.
Wong plays Shosho, a dishwasher in a nightclub who is hired by her boss (Jameson Thomas) to replace his star dancer – a mantle she assumes with all the seductive ambition of a femme fatale. Amid the smoky, drunken and racially charged hotbed of Piccadilly, this pre-noir tale brings together several contemporary topics (Orientalism, urbanisation, consumerism) and culminates – as all films bound to such a milieu must – in a suspenseful murder sequence. As stylistically inventive and impressive as its opening credits, Piccadilly presents a city that is alive and well – at a cost.
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
Director: Robert Hamer
As head producer Michael Balcon put it, Ealing Studios were responsible for making films “projecting Britain and the British character”. Though there are funnier films to cite from their heyday, none illustrate this better than It Always Rains on Sunday. Indeed, while director Robert Hamer went on to make Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) – one of British cinema’s most quintessential black comedies – it’s in this decidedly more downbeat effort that the fragility of postwar London rings most resoundingly.
Googie Withers plays the surrogate matriarch of the Sandigates, a barely functional family in Bethnal Green, whose lives are complicated over the course of one typically dreary Sunday when Withers’ ex-lover shows up freshly escaped from Dartmoor Prison. Location filming lends vivid authenticity to the suitably claustrophobic interiors, and the prevailing tone is one of disappointment and disharmony, as communal and domestic ties unravel in the deafeningly quiet aftermath of the war – as if Bethnal Green was still coming to terms with its underground station disaster, in which 173 people had been crushed to death when attempting to enter it during an air raid in 1943.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Exiled from California after refusing to testify in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) 1947 investigations into communism in Hollywood, Edward Dmytryk worked in England for several years, making three features. One of them, Obsession, finds Robert Newton – fresh from his role as Bill Sykes in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) and a year prior to his first appearance as Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island – on enticingly charming form as a doctor keeping his wife’s American lover as a prisoner, hidden away in some secret basement beneath the bombed-out backstreets of postwar London.
Brian McFarlane has written that it “was hard to trust [Newton] as an ordinary hero… there was always a fear that he would sabotage the enterprise” – and indeed the actor here plays no ordinary hero, as a man hell-bent on slowly chiseling away at another’s life. And yet, Newton’s raspy elegance here is matched by the disturbingly forthcoming way with which he converses not only with his prisoner (played by Phil Brown, himself later blacklisted by Hollywood following the HUAC trials and famous since for playing Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen in Star Wars), but also with the cheekily intrusive Superintendent Finsbury – played with much relish by Naunton Wayne. The film was released in the US as The Hidden Room.
Night and the City (1950)
Director: Jules Dassin
Edward Dmytryk wasn’t the only filmmaker blacklisted by Hollywood to find temporary refuge in London. Jules Dassin, having made the likes of Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) in America and on his way to making the classic heist thriller Rififi (1955) in France, found enough ripe stomping ground by Tower Bridge and surrounding locales to make this sweaty romp through an inimitably seedy London underworld.
Richard Widmark plays Harry Fabian, a reckless nightclub tout and scam artist who goes into business with the long-suffering wife of a local big shot in an attempt to corner the city’s wrestling racket. Noted for its breakneck pace, on-location realism and brutal, almost hysterical depiction of ill-fated entrepreneurialism, Dassin’s brilliant handling of Gerald Kersh’s script (adapted from his novel of the same name, which the director later claimed never to have read) scathingly paints individualism and corruption as one and the same, and London as a city in which nice guys finish last.
Pool of London (1950)
Director: Basil Dearden
With the Ealing-produced Pool of London, Basil Dearden effectively returned to the criminal milieu and police procedural elements that made The Blue Lamp (1949) successful enough to spawn Dixon of Dock Green, while anticipating the more muscular heist trappings of The League of Gentlemen (1960) and the racism-focused, London-set murder mystery Sapphire (1959).
Named after the stretch of the Thames from London Bridge to Limehouse, and featuring a superb heist sequence, Pool of London follows two sailors – one white, the other black – who get caught up in a local diamond-smuggling racket. Notable for juxtaposing the working-class environs of the docklands with more touristy settings such as St Paul’s, the film also depicts an unpredictable city when it comes to the treatment of black people. As Johnny, the West Indies sailor whose romantic pursuit of a local are denied by the restrictive social mores of the time, Earl Cameron shines.
Never Let Go (1960)
Director: John Guillermin
When cosmetics salesman John Cummings (Richard Todd) leaves work to find his newly purchased Ford Anglia has been stolen, his whole life threatens to spiral: without the vehicle he’ll be late to more consultations, more clients will file complaints against him, he’ll be sacked from his job and he’ll be unable to provide for his wife or make the payments on their car. Barely aided by an indifferent police officer, Cummings investigates only to find that the one witness to the initial theft has been killed in a cover-up.
Guillermin’s relatively slept-on film is a far cry from his The Towering Inferno (1974) or the 1976 King Kong remake. This tautly directed neorealist western instead deals with the corner cafés and backstreet apartments of a London in which crime nearly does pay – thanks to a policing system lacking foresight, impressionable youth cultures and a self-loathing middle class. It also features a tremendous performance by Peter Sellers, in one of his rare straight roles as the protagonist’s ultimate nemesis, a charming car salesman-cum-brutal racketeer named Lionel Meadows.
Bronco Bullfrog (1969)
Director: Barney Platts-Mills
Barney Platts-Mills’ debut feature was born out of a documentary, made the previous year, about an initiative at Stratford’s Theatre Royal that aimed to get local unemployed youths to channel their prevailing sense of listlessness into acting workshops and other creative endeavours. Working with an entirely non-professional cast, Platts-Mills paints a picture of disaffection and frustration as a group of teenagers play out their seemingly futureless days against the real locations of East End bombsites and newly-built tower blocks.
In line with Kes (made the same year), Bronco Bullfrog is an inspiringly rough-and-ready drama that refuses to reduce those disenfranchised teenagers at its centre to mere criminals – unlike the state that has systematically abandoned them. Indeed, the most pressing part of the narrative here involves the absurd idea that protagonist Del might be wanted by police for kidnapping his 15-year-old girlfriend Irene (top-down intransigence prevails, sadly, over common sense) – all the two want is to be left alone without harassment for a few hours.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock made no shortage of great films in his native London, but this homecoming – after decades working in the US – is perhaps his seediest and most vibrant thanks to the genuine grit and unprecedented verisimilitude afforded by a location shoot. Indeed, though his 1929 masterpiece Blackmail began with a documentarian edge and ended with a set-piece in the British Museum, Frenzy saw Leytonstone’s finest cinematic export return to what had by then become his most enduring sub-genre: the wrong man thriller, as an unemployed alcoholic is wrongly suspected of being a serial rapist.
Based on Arthur La Bern’s wonderfully titled 1966 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, Frenzy depicts a Covent Garden in an almost endemic state of suspicion, panic, sleaze and gossip. Having left Britain for Hollywood in 1940, Hitchcock returned for his penultimate feature to find the cultural and political landscape inevitably changed. In the opening sequence, his unique profile can be spotted, beneath a bowler hat, looking on as a naked corpse is fished out of the Thames just by the postcard chic of Tower Bridge.
Director: Horace Ové
Crime is a socio-political necessity in Pressure. Though none of their principal characters are criminals, director Horace Ové and co-writer Samuel Selvon demonstrate how you can’t make a serious film about a West Indian and Caribbean community like Notting Hill’s without colliding head-on with how the system serves to criminalise it. The real criminals here of course are the police, who target the black youths seeking to organise their own systems of education and political consciousness in a society that is grossly under-representing them.
Filmed on the streets of Ladbroke Grove (with visibly bemused and/or suspicious locals looking into the camera), Pressure also illustrates how far a shoestring budget can be taken when the filmmakers in question aren’t afraid to write serious dialogue and to actually confront the social difficulties facing an entire generation.
The Firm (1989)
Director: Alan Clarke
Crime isn’t always carried out for financial gain: sometimes, it’s sought simply for the buzz. Alan Clarke’s frequently vicious yet strangely amusing swansong confronted football hooliganism, that most violent of weekly pastimes, when Thatcher’s government was using it to further vilify the working class as an unthinking, uneducated mob, and reveals the sport to be victim rather than cause. At the film’s centre is Bex Bissell – played with churning gusto by an unmatched Gary Oldman – a charming estate agent on weekdays and ruthless yobbo-on-the-terraces when Saturday comes, who’s looking to secure his status as the head of a national ‘firm’ heading to Europe to take on intercontinental rivals.
Driven by Oldman’s performance and Clarke’s trademark long takes, this compelling film taps into the profoundly complex structures and pressures at work within tribal politics. Bex’s individual thirst for violence seems in some way to be a psychological matter, of course, but in other ways it also seems to be socially and even historically conditioned – expressing a certain release from the banal stresses of family life and the property sector.
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