As a Leytonstone-born boy (only a couple of tube stops from the Olympic site), Hitchcock's early work, particularly the likes of "The Lodger" and "Sabotage," are fine documents of London. But his most enjoyable and gripping portrait of the city might come with his first shoot in London for over three decades, in what is certainly the best of his late-period films, "Frenzy." Based on the novel "Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square," with a screenplay by "Sleuth" writer Anthony Shaffer, it stars Jon Finch (just off playing "Macbeth" for Polanski) as Richard Blaney, who comes under suspicion for a series of sex murders when his ex-wife and girlfriend become victims, despite discovering that the real culprit is his friend Rusk (Barry Foster, in a part turned down by Michael Caine). It's significantly darker and nastier than much of the director's work (it feels almost like the direct inspiration for Brian DePalma's entire career), with a number of typically gripping sequences, not least the one in which Rusk tries to retrieve evidence from the body of Blaney's girlfriend, who lies in a sack of potatoes in the back of a moving lorry. And his feel for the city of his birth clearly never left him in his absence: this is a London film through and through, opening with a helicopter shot of Tower Bridge, and with of the film set in and around the fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden, where Hitch's father had been a merchant, and which the director wanted to capture on screen before it was redeveloped the next year.
Tourist Trail: The market's no longer in the same place -- it's moved, confusingly, south of the river, to the decidedly less picturesque Battersea -- but there's still plenty to find in Covent Garden itself. We particularly recommend burger joint Meat Market. If you're location-hunting, though, you can pop in for a pint at the nearby pub Nell Of Old Drury's, where one scene is set.
The last decade-and-a-half have seen a wealth of London-set gangster movies, but aside from a small handful (Guy Ritchie's first couple of films have their charms, and Paul McGuigan's "Gangster No. 1" is underrated), most have been pretty dire. Thus, the high watermark still remains John Mackenzie's terrific 1980 film "The Long Good Friday." Bob Hoskins plays Harold Shand, a London gangster sitting at the top of the tree, and hoping to move into legitimate territory with a huge property development in the Docklands era of East London, in the hope that it might serve as the site for a future Olympics (ooh, prescient). But he's under attack from an unknown enemy (the IRA, it would seem), causing the U.S. Mafia (led by Eddie Constantine, the star of Godard's "Alphaville"!) to pull out of the agreement, leaving Harold desperate to salvage his deal. It's firmly a film that sums up its era -- timed perfectly to the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in government, with Harold as the kind of figure who would have flourished under her, and its tie to the real-life redevelopment of the Docklands serves as a neat time capsule for a London in transition. But it's also simply a gripping thriller, with a star-making performance from Hoskins (and Helen Mirren, as his lover), showing both the peaceful, honorable man Shand wants to be, and the psychotic thug that lies underneath. His final scene, as he's confronted by an IRA hitman (Pierce Brosnan, in his first screen role) is something of an acting masterclass.
Tourist Trail: To see the would-be fruits of what Howard was trying to sow, you can pop down to Docklands itself, which isn't an Olympic site, but is instead a major business center. It's also home to Canary Wharf, until recently London's tallest building. You can also see where his boat was moored, in St. Katharine's Docks, near Tower Bridge.
"An American Werewolf In London" (1981)
Most of the films here involve Londoners in London, but it's not surprising that the seminal tourists's-eye-view of the city comes from an American movie, from an American director. What might be more surprising is that it comes in the shape of a horror-comedy with John Landis' "An American Werewolf In London," probably still the finest example of the genre. The film doesn't start in London, but actually in the Yorkshire moores, where college students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) ignore the warning of locals to "beware the moon," and are attacked by a vicious creature. Jack is killed, but David survives, taken to London, and, as he falls in love with his beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter), starts to have terrible visions and hallucinations, not least visits from a decaying, torn-up Jack, who warns him that he's been turned into a werewolf, and can only kill himself to break the curse. He is, as the title might give away, entirely correct, and the result is a bonafide classic that provides some big laughs without ever sacrificing drama or character integrity, leading to a film with shocks both broad and silly (the Nazi zombie dream) and genuinely unnerving (that still-stunning transformation sequence, the best ever put on screen). And Landis makes great use of the city, from a tense-as-anything stalking sequence in the Tottenham Court Road tube station, to David waking up at London Zoo after a spree. Best of all is the final carnage outside tourist hot-spot Piccadilly Circus, a gory, brilliantly orchestrated sequence in the center of the city that must have been an absolute nightmare to capture. Fortunately, it was entirely worth it...
Tourist Trail: London Zoo's always worth the trip (particularly with their occasional late nights), although you're unlikely to see a naked David Naughton while you're there. Otherwise, you can pop down to Piccadilly Circus to see the sight of David's last stand, although if there ever were any porno theaters there, they're long gone.