London: Cine-City (Part Two)
The Continental Threat to the London sexual unconscious, Hitchcock (again) and the non-seediness of Blairite space...
In The 39 Steps, Hitchcock's London is revealed as a distinctly rum place. Its 'hero', Hannay, is a lanky, vaguely sinister Canadian cad with a propensity for music halls and picking up strange East European women. He lives in Portland Place, on the other side of Oxford Street, but his spiritual home is clearly Soho. Throughout the film Hitchcock plays on his attractiveness and his existence outside of the law, with his near-seduction of Peggy Ashcroft, his eroticised act of accidental kidnapping: chained hand to hand with Madeleine Carroll, leading to the explosive sexual tension of the scene where the handcuffed couple try to sleep away from each other. The people here, and the stark city they move around in, is a definitive instance of London - City of Seediness, the city of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, of Verloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, and of Bill Brandt: in all of these cases, continental immigrants and the grimy city fuse themselves into a murky, sexualised threat to Victorian verities.
As I mentioned in Part One , the city transformed by Thatcherism and Blairism into one where the financial district has its own police force but the city as a whole has no municipal council, has caused sudden outbreaks of pure cinematic space: the icy beauty of the Jubilee stations, the neo-Modernist Norman Foster office blocks, the bars full of the international plutocracy at play, all alongside a multinational and vastly poorer parallel city with its crumbling infrastructure and its incoveniently towering housing projects. A statistic told me by Bat: the only area in Britain that has a non-white majority is above the fifth floor. One of the few recent films to try and chart at least some of this space is Michael Caton-Jones' Basic Instinct 2. While the unintentionally hilarious tourist fantasy of Match Point uses say, the Gherkin as a bit of local colour, as they would the Sagrada Familia or a Guggenheim, this piece of oddly ambitious Hitchcockian exploitation analyses these spaces, as pointed out by K-Punk, guesses what sort of people reside in the steel and coloured glass curves of Foster's buildings. David Morrissey's performance as the psychoanalyst with the office in the Gherkin evokes nothing other than the members of the current Shadow Cabinet, a decidedly Cameronian pinched brutality and estuary mock-classlessness, and with his lustings after a Costa Coffee waitress, he seems a likely occasional columnist for thelondonpaper.
Interestingly, the film has an utter lack of any actual sexual tension, of any thrill or eroticism: Sharon Stone's performance, though wonderfully hammy, has all the sexlessness of contemporary porn's athletic treadmill. The Hitchcockian or Brandtian city of seedy allure is entirely absent: and perhaps it is from London as a whole. Basic Instinct 2's protagonists spend some time in Soho, but the vice seems so much more boring than it would have been presented by the Hitchcock of the 1930s. One of the earliest of Bill Brandt's British photographs, after the Weimar/Red Vienna apprenticeship, is of lovers in a Soho bedroom: in a darkened corner of a nearly bare room, with its prettily Victorian wallpapaper seeming a sick joke. Its all black lines and murk, repudiating the Neue Photographie he was trained in, with its abstract plays of light for a totally monochrome newsprint griminess. It's bleak, but oddly sweet: there seems to be some comfort in this uninviting room, a brief escape from the cold outside towards human contact and affection. In order to actually depict a convincingly eroticised London, however, Brandt had to distort, had to make a conditional return to continental abstraction: his nudes of the 1940s and 50s stretch and distend the body into a liquefacient, utopian thing, free from the solidities of his 30s' Soho. At least part of their effect though, comes from the interiors: the grand but production line regency terraces outside, the tortuous curve of the Victorian furniture, the excresences, again, of the wallpaper. The space of the London quotidian is made seductively strange.
His cinematic near-equivalent, Hitchcock, was far too Catholic to make a similar re-imagining towards this sort of emancipated carnality. The 1960s did however see at least one return to the grimly enticing Soho of Brandt's early years: Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. Here we have as well a return of the pornographer-as-protagonist familiar from Conrad's The Secret Agent. Verloc, the astoundingly mercenary continental spy of the title, earns his living selling anarchist pamphlets and pornographic postcards. Yet he seems remarkably sexually uninterested in the voluptuous delights of his English wife, who is at first sanguine about offering herself to him: only later to become utterly ashamed and offering herself instead to an Anarchist pimp even more amoral than Verloc. In this, the Polish writer plays on the unease the European purveyor of filth creates in the Edwardian reader, and its notable that in Hitchcock's adaptation of the book as Sabotage in 1936 Verloc's profession is left unclear. In Peeping Tom Powell has no qualms about unleashes the psychotic, destructive European pornographer Karlheinz Böhm on Soho. This world is still as furtive as Verloc's, however: the contrast between the timid, shrinking photographers and the ballistically proportioned women, such as Pamela Green, who features in the film, who made up the 60s 'glamour' genre is vast. Peeping Tom's 'photography adviser' was the pornographer George Harrison Marks, whose work had an occasionally Riefenstahlian tinge: and his world of furtive voluptuousness infuses the film.
The sort of material euphimistically referred to as 'Educational Books' in Peeping Tom was no doubt akin to the magazines that Malcolm Maclaren and Vivienne Westwood would sell in their 70s shops precisely because the ludicrous proportions of their models and the evident air of guilt about the whole proceedings fitted perfectly into their war on the natural, carefree sexuality posited by the late '60s. As if to reassert the essential sexlessness and uncomfortableness of the English as its only true representation, the unique contribution of the British aesthetic being its repression, its seediness and its refusal of the possibility of release.
Part Three: London and Catastrophe. The Blitz, It Happened Here, H.G Wells and more!