London is a cinematic city. And that doesn’t just mean the tourist attractions. James Bond can fly his helicopter over the Houses of Parliament all he likes, but is it really any more thrilling than Daniel Day-Lewis snogging Gordon Warnecke outside a laundrette in Lambeth? From the silent era right up to the present day, Time Out’s list of the best London movies covers comedy, horror, sci-fi, romance, disaster movies, political dramas and psychedelic thrillers. But they’re all united by one thing – they’re set and shot in the greatest city in the known universe…
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The best London movies
Director Mike Newell
Floppy-haired Charles (Hugh Grant) is looking for The One in Richard Curtis’s sweet, soppy movie. The capital provides a picture-perfect backdrop as Grant and his band of twenty-something aristo Londoners date, flirt and consider settling for sub-standard partners in an effort to get down the aisle. Proof that spending every sunny Saturday at a friend’s wedding is not a modern affliction.
Most London moment Anyone who has ever run late in London will recognise Charles and Scarlett’s expletive-stuffed struggle to get to the church on time. Car? Bus? Taxi? It’s probably quicker to just leg it.
London location Charles lives (and has that romantic, rainy reunion) on Highbury Terrace in Highbury Fields, the lucky sod. He also wanders along the South Bank and has a matrimonial meltdown at Smithfield’s St Bartholomew the Great. EWA
Director Val Guest
London swelters through the ultimate heatwave in this gritty homegrown disaster sci-fi movie, in which an atomic bomb test alters Earth’s orbit and sends us careering towards the sun. Scenes of the populace swarming into Battersea Park to sweat cheerfully into their Mr Whippys will be familiar to anyone who has ever spent a summer in the capital. The haunting scenes of the deserted city must have influenced ‘28 Days Later’, and the ambiguous ending is a killer.
Most London moment Whenever anything bad happens (which is pretty regularly), all the characters go straight to the pub.
London location Much of the action takes place in the old Daily Express office at 121 Fleet Street, which is still standing. The paper’s then editor even plays a key role. TH
Director Lucio Fulci
An intoxicatingly strange Italian-funded giallo thriller directed by the man behind such horror masterpieces as ‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’ and ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, this is also a fascinating window into London as the ’60s counterculture dream crumbled. Following an upper-class society bride whose nocturnal lesbian fantasies lead her into a world of killer kaftan-clad hippies, creepy psychoanalysts and disembowelled dogs, it’s unforgettably freaky.
Most London moment Whenever the great Stanley Baker shows up as an eternally square and befuddled inspector from Scotland Yard.
London location There’s a gripping chase through the derelict, smoked-out ruins of Alexandra Palace. TH
Director Basil Dearden
Made six years before the law decriminalised homosexual acts between men, ‘Victim’ is a tense suspense film set in a world of oppression. Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a married barrister whose secret romantic friendship with a young man exposes him to blackmailers. The film offers a window on another world, and that’s what makes it enduring. Some elements are dated, but it’s a film that dared to speak up and now serves as a fascinating time capsule.
Most London moment The homophobic old-school landlord of a West End pub moans about homosexuality to a woman at the bar and then hypocritically wishes a good night to a pair of regular customers, two older gay men.
London location Several scenes unfold in and around Covent Garden. The Salisbury pub on St Martin’s Lane (then a gay-friendly pub) features prominently. DC
Director Gary Sherman
‘Mind the doors!’ You may never travel on the tube again after watching this gruesome but unexpectedly moving London cannibal flick, in which a murderer stalking the Underground tunnels is revealed to be a childlike mutant man-eater. It’s part of a long tradition of British horror movies – from ‘Peeping Tom’ to ‘Under the Skin’ – where the monster is considerably more sympathetic than the supposed good guys.
Most London moment Donald Pleasence’s bolshy sergeant bellowing ‘Get yer 'air cut!’ at students.
London location The murders happen around Russell Square tube station. TH
Director Joe Cornish
Aliens invade Brixton and the only thing standing between humanity and total annihilation are a bunch of mouthy hoodie-wearing kids on BMX bikes. Comedian Joe Cornish’s directorial debut takes the low-budget thrills of ’80s straight-to-video horror and marries them to the bolshy wit and realism of sarf London youth movies. But the most remarkable thing in ‘Attack the Block’ is the controlled and intense lead performance by then-unknown John Boyega, now a ‘Star Wars’ legend.
Most London moment Too many to mention, but the community-spirited finale is a strong contender. ‘Moses! Moses! Moses!’
London location The majority of the film was shot in and around the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle. TH
Director John MacKenzie
The greatest British gangster movie of them all? If so, it’s thanks to Finsbury Park’s own Bob Hoskins. Crass and brutal but totally magnetic, his mob boss Harold Shand rampages across the city, powerless as his organisation crumbles before his eyes. As well as predicting the carve-up of the old East End and the rising tide of Thatcherite capitalism, Barrie Keeffe’s virtuoso script also includes some of the finest lines a Cockney ever spoke. ‘The Mafia? I’ve shit ’em!’
Most London moment The sheer panic on Harold Shand’s face as his favourite pub explodes before his eyes. Well you would, wouldn’t you?
London location Things start going wrong when Harold’s car gets blown up outside Hawksmoor’s splendid St George-in-the-East church in Shadwell. JM
Director Stephen Frears
The past is another country. And the mid-’80s south London of ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ feels like a continent apart, with racist skinheads prowling the streets and Wandsworth full of squatters on the dole rather than rich bankers in Audis. In this drama written by Hanif Kureishi, a young British-Pakistani man, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), takes over a laundrette with his childhood friend Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis in his first major role). The pair also, secretly, happen to be in a relationship. As well as showing the political and racial tension of Thatcher’s London, ‘Laundrette’ was one of the first mainstream films to treat gay relationships as no biggie.
Most London moment A clandestine PDA, in which Johnny licks Omar’s neck outside the laundrette. In a city packed with people, it’s still possible to grab a nice snog in secret.
London location The streets of Vauxhall, looking familiar but scruffy, with boarded-up shop fronts and not a Sainsbury’s in sight. CC
Director Edgar Wright
They’d already created an iconic London sitcom with ‘Spaced’. For their first big-screen team-up, writer-director Edgar Wright and writer-actor Simon Pegg brought shuffling zombies to south London. Half the nerd world can quote the entire script for the resulting ‘rom-zom-com’, but for all its blood, guts and horror-movie references, this is a solidly London story.
Most London moment Where do our embattled heroes go when the undead hordes start rising? Straight to the pub, of course (see also ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’).
London location The scenes in the aforementioned pub, called The Winchester in the film, were actually filmed at the Duke of Albany in New Cross. TH
Director Gary Oldman
Gary Oldman’s blistering account of a family living in south-east London is one of the most harrowing depictions of London life. Drawing on his own upbringing (Oldman was born in New Cross), it follows Val (Kathy Burke), her violent partner Ray (Ray Winstone) and their extended family. It’s not easy watching, and it’s sweary as hell (82 instances of the word ‘cunt’, apparently) but it packs an almighty emotional wallop, has some incredible performances and never wavers from showing the horrors of poverty, violence and addiction.
Most London moment Concrete council blocks, laundrettes, the Old Kent Road – working-class London is in every frame.
London location Much of the film was shot on the now-demolished Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke, Greenwich. GT
Director Franco Rosso
Aswad frontman Brinsley Forde plays Blue, a black British teenager who can’t get ahead because the system – in the form of racist cops, government cuts, job shortages and Mel Smith – won’t let him. Released less than a year before the first wave of Brixton riots, ‘Babylon’ still feels relevant and radical, a bold statement on cultural intolerance and ingrained prejudice masquerading as ‘British’ values.
Most London moment The massive sound-system party in a Brixton warehouse is eardrum-batteringly authentic.
London location Accused of stabbing his racist neighbour, Blue flees from the cops down Deptford High Street. TH
Director Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock’s obsession with mistaken identities may have masked a gnawing persecution complex, but it also resulted in some magnificent films. First of the bunch was this mist-shrouded silent masterpiece, in which Ivor Novello plays an innocent man who happens to bear a striking similarity to a murderer targeting young blondes.
Most London moment A furious mob surrounds and pummels Novello, convinced he’s the killer. Say what you like about this city, but we love a get-together.
London location In the film’s happy ending (ordered by the film studio against Hitchcock’s wishes), the central couple is seen kissing in front of the Palace of Westminster. TH
Director Henry Cornelius
Isolationism is a proud British trait, as we’ve seen in the past year or so. This Ealing comedy gem carries that idea to its absolute extreme, as the inhabitants of the London borough of Pimlico discover that, due to an ancient treaty, they’re not actually part of the UK at all, and immediately set about seceding from the union and making their own laws. A wry, spry comedy about community, pig-headedness and the very concept of nationalism, it’s never felt more timely.
Most London moment On the verge of being starved out by the British government, the residents of Pimlico react with joy when parcels of food are tossed over the ‘border’ by proud anti-establishment Londoners. Stick it to the man.
London location ‘Passport to Pimlico’ was shot in the aftermath of the Blitz so most of the locations are no longer with us. But the railway arches on Lambeth Road are still intact. TH
Director Andrea Arnold
Okay, so it’s set in Barking, which is only London if you squint a bit. But this stark tale of shattered lives in satellite towns feels raw and concrete in the best London-movie tradition. Katie Jarvis gives a striking performance as Mia, the bolshy, dance-obsessed teenager who develops a thing for her Mum’s fella. He is Michael Fassbender, so kind of fair enough.
Most London moment Mia dances like no one’s watching in a half-ruined tower block.
London location Most of it’s shot in Essex, but some Tower Hamlets estates were used as exteriors. TH
Directors Charles Crichton
John Cleese hauled Ealing comedy legend Charles Crichton out of retirement to co-write and direct this acid-tongued shout-out to the classic comedy crime caper. Cleese plays a barrister swept up in a robbery plot; Michael Palin outraged stutterers worldwide as an animal-loving getaway driver; and two Yanks, Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, offer scathing observations on British life.
Most London moment Cockney crook Tom Georgeson’s cry of ‘unbe-fackin’-lieveable!’.
London location The iconic scene where Kline dangles Cleese out of a window was shot at New Concordia Wharf in Bermondsey. TH
Director Bruce Robinson
If London life is a constant oscillation between farce and deep despair, 'Withnail and I' hits those extremes like few other films. Out-of-work, down-at-heel actors Withnail and Marwood (whose name is never spoken) escape the nicotine-brown Camden Town of 1969 for a mini-break at a remote cottage owned by Withnail’s flamboyant Uncle Monty. Things go predictably badly, but the film’s blackest-ever black humour has given us some of the finest lines available to humanity.
Most London moment ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!’ Any Londoner who’s ever found themselves stuck in the countryside can relate.
London location The duo’s battered Jag hurtles along the M25 near Rickmansworth, despite the film being set 17 years before the Orbital Motorway actually opened. JM
Director Michael Winterbottom
He didn’t always spend his time trundling around fancy restaurants with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Loosely inspired by Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’, director Michael Winterbottom and his regular screenwriter Laurence Coriat crafted this gorgeously sad story of lonely London lives, starring Gina McKee, Shirley Henderson and Molly Parker as working-class siblings who just can’t get a break. Michael Nyman’s score is lovely, too.
Most London moment Gina McKee gazes mournfully out of the night-bus window as life goes on around her. Every single Londoner has done this.
London location There are several scenes set in buzzing Soho and Leicester Square, as the characters find themselves alone in a crowd. TH
Director Jules Dassin
London is a sleazy, amoral city of chancers, thugs, the careless rich and the helpless poor in this classic film noir by American director Jules Dassin (working here in exile from the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunts in Hollywood). Richard Widmark’s fast-talking American hustler Harry Fabian is a classic noir type, but he’s hopelessly out of his depth in the rundown streets of the post-war West End. Herbert Lom and Googie Withers take hard-nosed supporting roles. Don’t bother with the ’90s De Niro remake: this is the real deal, guv’nor.
Most London moment Harry Fabian’s desperate trawl for cash through various Cockney lowlifes: a beggar, a forger, a smuggler… Eat your heart out, Guy Ritchie.
London location The rubble-strewn industrial South Bank is the setting for the climactic chase scene. Things have changed so much since 1950 that it’s a shock when Waterloo Bridge looms into view, looking more or less the same. JM
Director John Landis
‘Queen Elizabeth is a man! Prince Charles is a faggot! Winston Churchill was full of shit!’ ‘Blues Brothers’ director John Landis’s gleeful, outrageous horror comedy is very much a Yankee tourist’s view of the capital, taking in trips to London Zoo, Tower Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Hampstead Heath and seedy Soho. The film also sets up – and gorily chomps down – a cheerful array of British caricatures, from gobby cabbies to snooty businessmen.
Most London moment David has visions of the living dead in the back row of a Soho porn theatre. Hey, we’ve all been there.
London location In the film’s creepiest scene, the werewolf stalks a petrified City boy through the tunnels of Tottenham Court Road station. The long escalator still looks exactly the same. TH
Director Mike Leigh
‘You’re fookin’ generous you Cockernees, aren’t ya?’ Mike Leigh’s scabrous comedy may take an outsider’s view of our city, as mouthy Manc misanthrope Johnny (David Thewlis) heads to the capital to pester an old girlfriend and roam the streets until dawn causing trouble. But through Johnny’s eyes, we see a side of the city most movies ignore: the runaways, the tearaways, the night workers and the helplessly lonely.
Most London moment His sneering performance may get a bit much, but Greg Cruttwell’s rapacious rapist City boy Jeremy plays up to a London type we’ve all met.
London location The ‘Naked’ house is at 33 St Mark’s Rise in Dalston, and looks basically the same as it did in the movie. TH
Director Clive Barker
Suburban family drama meets seedy S&M exposé meets Satanic splatter movie in Clive Barker’s extraordinary debut, in which an American girl living in London inadvertently opens a doorway into hell. The film was manhandled by its distributor, hence several obviously dubbed ‘American’ characters. But Barker’s subversive iconography has entered the cultural mainstream – everyone knows Pinhead.
Most London moment There’s something horribly British about the scenes where Clare Higgins lures sad, doomed middle-aged men into her death-attic.
London location The ‘Hellraiser’ house is at 187 Dollis Hill Lane, and fans still trudge up there to take a look. TH
Director Stanley Kubrick
Its predictions for the future may not have been entirely accurate – we don’t all hang out drinking spiked milk and talking cod-Russian slang, while the plague of adolescent violence was probably more serious when the film was released. But in the flamboyance of its anti-hero Alex, in the contrast between his Beethoven-scored dreams and his ugly, concrete reality – and most of all in its depiction of petty, small-minded bureaucrats – Kubrick’s film still feels very London.
Most London moment A dedicated follower of fashion, Alex lurks round the local record shop in full Georgian dress, checking out the talent.
London location Alex chucks his droogs into the river – in glorious slow-mo – just down from the Thamesmead estate. TH
Director Alexander Mackendrick
The lady of the title is one Mrs Wilberforce, the aged owner of a King’s Cross townhouse where a criminal gang led by Alec Guinness’s lurking Professor Marcus come to plot their next job. She learns too much, the mob get wise and it’s curtains for Wilberforce. Except that the old bird isn’t as easy to knock off as she seems… Ealing’s blackest comedy is pure joy: a crackling script and a dynamite cast in service to one of British film’s most perfect plots.
Most London moment Impossible to pin down – the whole film is crammed with dotty old ladies, bumbling policemen, cups of tea and seedy criminality.
London location Most of the locations have been aggressively redeveloped, but one memorable body-disposal scene takes place in the old railway tunnels behind King’s Cross. TH
Director Richard Lester
Or, A Liverpool Pop Band in London. Large chunks of Richard Lester’s template-setting pop movie take place inside a BBC television studio. But when the band get out and about this is a London movie through and through, from a sprint through Marylebone Station pursued by crazed fans to an evening spent at Les Ambassadeurs Club in Mayfair – which is actually still in business.
Most London moment George wanders into a fashion studio and laconically dissects the entire shallow industry. Looking back, 53 years later, it doesn’t seem to have helped.
London location Abandoning the group, Ringo goes for a mournful saunter down by the Thames near Kew Gardens. TH
Director Michael Powell
The film that single-handedly destroyed the career of Britain’s finest filmmaker, Michael Powell, ‘Peeping Tom’ is twisted, voyeuristic and brilliant. The story of a murderer whose abuse at the hands of his scientist father has turned him into a violent sociopath, the film takes place in the seedy backstreets of Soho, a haunt of prostitutes, pornographers and riff-raff.
Most London moment The scene in the newsagent, as seedy customers sidle in to check out the latest under-the-counter nudie pics.
London location The aforementioned newsagent on Rathbone Place is now a Caffe V, but head around the corner to Newman Passage to retrace the killer’s steps in the iconic opening sequence. TH
Director Robert Hamer
Sooner or later, every Londoner comes to learn their place within our city’s pecking order. What they choose to do about it is up to them. Ealing’s viciously funny satire follows middle-class office worker Louis (Dennis Price) as he sets out to enhance his social status by murdering everyone who stands between him and a massive aristocratic fortune. Alec Guinness is the ultimate screen chameleon playing all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, male and female.
Most London moment Louis’ desire to wipe out those who get in his way is a feeling every Londoner has had at one time or another. Sometimes several times a day.
London location ‘I shot an arrow in the air… it came to earth in Berkeley Square.’ TH
Director Robert Hamer
In a city still reeling from the Blitz, a married woman, played by Googie Withers, must contend with the reappearance of an old flame ex-con (John McCallum). Responding to the challenges thrown down by American film noir and Italian neo-realism, director Robert Hamer crafted an extraordinary drama rooted in the everyday lives of east Londoners, but glittering with theatrical light and shadows.
Most London moment Refusing to allow her on-the-lam ex into the house, Googie opts to stick him in the coal shed.
London location The breathtaking climactic chase scene takes place in the old Temple Mills railway yard in Stratford. TH
Director Joseph Losey
Hackney-born Harold Pinter knew more than most about tightening the thumbscrews on a drama, and his screenplay for ‘The Servant’ – adapted from a 1948 novella – is a classic example. After Tony (James Fox), a bluff, proto-sloane aristo engages the services of Barrett (Dirk Bogarde’s affable manservant), it’s business as usual in his Chelsea townhouse. Then things start getting weird. Pinter’s genius is ramping up intolerable menace by almost imperceptible degrees. By the time posh Tony realises who’s really in charge, it’s far too late.
Most London moment The restaurant scene, with Pinter making a cameo as the menacingly oily ‘Society Man’: a London archetype who’s just as recognisable today.
London location Tony lives on one of London’s poshest streets: The Royal Avenue in Chelsea. Losey lived just across the road. Nowadays a terraced house here will set you back more than £10 million. JM
Director David Lynch
‘A wind entered me and I was back in time. I knew it, 100 percent. Victorian England.’ Mystical explanations aside, David Lynch’s statement in a 2010 Time Out interview is hard to argue with. This achingly empathetic biopic of carnival ‘freak’ John (really Joseph) Merrick may be expressionistic and surreal, but its depiction of a city drowning in filth, cruelty and brutal class division feels completely honest.
Most London moment Anthony Hopkins descends into the smoky industrial underworld on the trail of gruesome wonders.
London location Merrick’s famous ‘I am not an animal!’ speech takes place in Liverpool Street station. The ornate pillars are still in place. TH
Directors Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg
The ultimate London movie – a tale of rock stars and thieves, creativity and confusion, drug-fuelled fantasy and hard, ugly reality. James Fox is a gangster forced to hide out in the crumbling west London home of a washed-up singer played, rather beautifully, by Mick Jagger. As both men descend into a grotty miasma of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, their personalities begin to blur.
Most London moment Jagger’s preening, strutting performance of the Stones’ ‘Memo From Turner’ is pure cock-of-the-walk Lahndan bravado.
London location The house occupied by Jagger in the film can be seen at 25 Powis Square in Notting Hill. Just don’t expect them to invite you in for an orgy. TH
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