How do you define a London film, exactly? I’m not talking about things like Robinson in Space (which isn’t as exciting as the title makes it sound), I’m talking about mainstream cinema.
For instance, many people tend to think of 28 Days Later as a London film, but much of it takes place on the outskirts of Manchester. The Harry Potter films have a lot of scenes set in London, but nobody thinks of them as London films. It’s clear that the definition is unclear.
For me, I suppose, what separates a “London film” from “a film set in London” is something atmospheric, a film reliant on London, that couldn’t be set anywhere else. Alfie, for instance, has a few scenes set in the countryside (though the sanitarium scenes, at least, were filmed in Twickenham) but otherwise relies entirely on the city for its setting. Where else could you set it but in Swinging London in the 1960s? I heard rumours of a remake with Jude Law set in the present, but as we all know, that could never happen. Never happen.
There are others – many of the Ealing comedies, for instance, are set in whole or in part in London. The one often cited is Passport to Pimlico, though technically most of that was set in Burgundy. Ah, but how about The Ladykillers?
Now you’re talking. This is indisputably a London film. Indeed, it never even moves beyond the bounds of King’s Cross. Released in 1955, it’s basically the story of a robbery that goes horribly wrong, resulting in the gruesome deaths of the perpetrators. But with laughs.
The movie stars Alec Guinness (wearing Alistair Sim’s dentures, movie fans) as the mastermind of a heist at King’s Cross Station. His fellow-robbers are played by Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green and Cecil Parker. His fifth accomplice, though unwitting, is vital to the plan – an old lady named Mrs Wilberforce, played by Katie Johnson.
The idea is simple – use the sweet old dear’s house as a base for the job. Convince her they’re a respectable string quintet, and in turn the police will never even consider asking the innocent, slightly dotty Mrs Wilberforce if she knows anything.
The plan, despite the various idiosyncracies of the gang and the well-meaning bumbling of Mrs Wilberforce, goes almost without a hitch. The money van is robbed and, using the instrument cases, the money is lugged back to the house.
Alas, the human factor lets them down – following a blunder, Mrs Wilberforce accidentally discovers the truth and demands that they do the right thing.
So of course they do. The money is returned and everyone learns a valuable lesson. Of course they don’t! Didn’t you see the title of the film? Having been discovered, they decide to silence Mrs Wilberforce for good. I mean, it can’t be that difficult to kill a defenceless old woman, can it?
The Ealing comedies are basically uptight ’50s Britain viewed through a cracked window. Aristocrats, vicars, bank clerks, even little old ladies get subverted in these anti-authoritarian flicks. In The Ladykillers, classical musicians are bank robbers, policemen are incompetent and meddling elders are surprisingly robust. It’s dark, it’s funny and, for a film that’s fifty-five years old, it’s really rather edgy.
For me, as someone who works but fifteen minutes’ brisk walk from King’s Cross, there’s the additional pleasure of seeing my local area (sort of) rendered unrecognisable by history. The King’s Cross of The Ladykillers is a very different place, a place of sooty brickwork and few cars, where a blue police box doesn’t immediately mean aliens are about. Steam trains and bomb damage play important roles in the plot, as do kindly policemen and the notion that maybe not everyone is a criminal suspect. Indeed, perhaps it’s this latter point that dates it more than any location scene (satire).
Even if you’re not into mid-twentieth century London, it’s definitely a film worth checking out to see an excellent cast perform a superbly-written crime caper. Though perhaps it is outwardly dated, at heart it’s got a cynicism that’s very modern. We shall not see its like again, I feel.