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
” 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.
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 center 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.
: "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.
As controversial as it was, "Blow-Up
" was at least mostly well-regarded at the time. But the other great look at the seedy side of the Swinging Sixties, Donald Cammell
and Nicolas Roeg
," wasn't so fortunate. Backers Warner Bros.
hated it (the wife of an executive reportedly vomited at a test screening), allegedly considered having the negative destroyed, and took two years to release the film. And even when the movie did hit theaters, many critics loathed it -- Richard Schickel called it "completely worthless." Fortunately, cinephiles have long since come to its rescue, and the film is often named among one of the best ever, though we wouldn't quite go that far as it's dramatically uneven, and somewhat indulgent in places. But Roeg (making his directorial debut after a decade of work as a DoP for the likes of David Lean
and Francois Truffaut
) and co-director Donald Cammell use the plot -- which involves an East End gangster (James Fox
, who retired from acting for a decade after the film was released) who falls under the influence of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger
) -- as the excuse for a classic head-fuck, creating a blurring of identity that comes across as a sort of testosterone-heavy version of persona. Indeed, with Fox representing the East, and Jagger and his Notting Hill mansion the West, their conflict and curious platonic love affair serves as a nice metaphor for the changing nature of the city at the time. Despite their relative inexperience behind the camera, Cammell and Roeg are in absolute command of the form (that Cammell's career never truly took off before his suicide in 1996 is one of cinema's great tragedies, particularly given that he was almost entirely responsible for cutting the film), and it makes a hell of a double bill with "Blow-Up," even if you're not indulging in the same substances as the characters.
: Turner's den of iniquity is located in Powis Square
in Notting Hill. The area's handily close to plenty of other film locations, including the title character of "Alfie
"'s flat, at 29 St. Stephen's Gardens
, and the front door of Hugh Grant
's character in "Notting Hill
" at 280 Westbourne Park Road
(which was actually Richard Curtis
' house, and is now black, rather than blue).