Think of Alfred Hitchcock films, and it's probably not London that springs to mind, but the USA. Lonesome motels, sleepy Californian beach towns and skyscraper-cluttered metropolises are a staple of his movies, but let's not forget that not only was Hitch born in London, integral parts of some of his best films were shot here — both in the studio and on location. Here we immerse ourselves in Hitchcock's London — the pieces immortalised on celluloid, and the bits and pieces of legacy that still pepper the capital.
Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, east London in 1899. We won't delve into comprehensive detail about every tree Hitch would have walked past/every street sign he might have seen, but if you're going on a pilgrimage, the basics to cover are: 517 High Road Leytonstone (where he was born, as stated now by a blue plaque), 130 Salmon Lane in Limehouse (where Hitchcock's parents owned a fish and chip shop), 112 Poplar High Street (he studied Engineering and Navigation here), Brompton Oratory (where he married Alma Reville), and 153 Cromwell Road in Kensington, where the Hitchcocks lived, and held script meetings.
In the studio
Hitch made his mark with silent movies, many of which were shot at Gainsborough Studios, overlooking Shoreditch Park — a green space which also now has the Hitchcock's Reel sculpture, formerly on Paul Street. The Gainsborough building remains today (in the guise of luxury apartments, naturally). Allusions to its filmic past include the studio name in big metal letters on the roof and a fat-headed bust (see above), which would look better suited in communist China, but is pretty cool all the same. In 1922, Hitch had his first shot as a director with Number 13. The theme's still relevant today: low income Londoners and their struggle to survive. Fittingly, the production went bust and was never completed.
The first of Hitch's films to properly make an impression on the public was 1927's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog — the only film of his that directly references London in the title. (This could have been different if the young director had got his way, and made a film of the play London Wall). The Lodger wasn't just steeped in lugubrious London legend — it's an adaptation of a book of the same name by Marie Belloc Lowndes, credited as the first ever Jack the Ripper fiction. Fair to say, then, that The Lodger is one of the groundbreaking London films.
Before moving far west to America, Hitchcock shifted over to west London — specifically Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd's Bush. Here, for Gaumont British, he made such films as 1935's The 39 Steps (much of which is set in London itself) and 1934's The Man Who Knew Too Much (more of which later). Unfortunately the studios fell foul of the wrecking ball in 1993.
A lesser-known, but essentially gripping, Hitchcock film — Sabotage (1936) — was shot at Lime Grove and on location in London. Among the genuine London scenery are Battersea Power Station (still quite new back then), London Zoo, Piccadilly Circus and Simpsons-in-the-Strand (a beloved dining spot of Hitch's). Below is the moment in Sabotage when a young boy wends his way across London with a parcel during the Lord Mayor's Show, unaware there's a ticking time bomb inside. Try to work out which bits are filmed on a set, and which are actual London.
Hitchcock filmed on location where it was practical, and many of the scenes you see in his London settings are the actual place. The Lodger was shot mainly in the studio, but there are location shots of Westminster, Embankment and Charing Cross. The British Museum sets the scene for an extended chase sequence in Blackmail (1929), where Tracy (Donald Calthrop) refreshes himself at the water fountain outside (still there) before trying to shrug off pursuers among ancient Egyptian and in the Reading Room (the glass ceiling of which he later crashes through).
Though most of Foreign Correspondent (1940) was filmed on sets in the States — including an ersatz Waterloo station — Hitch did use the actual Westminster Cathedral for the scene in which a retired assassin by the name of Rowley plummets from the campanile. And while Hitchcock's own funeral was held in California, a memorial service was conducted in June 1980 in that very same church. Meanwhile, in Stage Fright (1950), we see the real deal RADA in Gower Street (still there), and the extant Shepherds Tavern (where a meeting between Eve Gill and Ordinary Smith takes place).
Talking of Hitchcock pubs, while The Globe in Bow Street is permanently closed now, you can still have a pint (well, assuming it reopens post-lockdown) at The Nell of Old Drury in Catherine Street — both of which crop up in Frenzy (1972), a film we'll return to shortly.
To come back to The 39 Steps for a moment, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) leaves his house in Portland Place before fleeing from pursuers (Hitchcock liked a good pursuit) — on a milk float no less — at Park Crescent. Portland Place appears again in The Paradine Case (1947), another London-centric picture with Gregory Peck playing a barrister who falls in love with his defendant, an alleged poisoner.
Hitchcock was a notorious perfectionist. This was evident to the point that the director wouldn't just re-shoot scenes, but entire FILMS. Such was the case for The Man Who Knew Too Much — directed by Hitch in 1934 at Lime Grove, and then again in the States in 1956. One of the most dramatic scenes happens in the (actual) Royal Albert Hall and here is that reputable establishment in the former film (*SPOILER ALERT*).
Furthermore, the climax of the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was influenced by a notorious episode in London's history, the Siege of Sydney Street, in which Winston Churchill had a near miss when a bullet passed through his top hat.
For his penultimate offering, Hitchcock returned home to make one of his most Londony films in decades — Frenzy. Here, he explores the dark nature of the Thames — washed up corpses and all. Enjoy this trailer, and the ever-so-dodgy Covent Garden green screen action.
Hitch's shadow still looms large over London. Pull up on the tube in his old stomping ground of Leytonstone and you'll be greeted with an incredible set of mosaics, displaying money shots from his movies (although many of these are his US ones).
The 39 Steps — albeit a decidedly more comic take than Hitch's adaptation — has been making theatregoers crease up with laughter at Piccadilly's Criterion Theatre for a decade now, though it's not certain if or when there'll be performances again post-lockdown.
And there's a Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel in Whipps Cross, not far from where the director grew up, although as far as we can see, they haven't exactly gone overboard with their Hitch theme. If you're looking for filmic frisson, take a shower and get your better half to sneak up unexpectedly with some cutlery — preferably a butter knife, to avoid any mishaps.
What's your favourite bit of Hitchcock's London? Let us know in the comments.
We've also explored Stanley Kubrick's London.