The freshest image of the Tube in moviegoers’ memories is not an encouraging one: a train crashing through the walls of an underground chamber and crumpling into a heap right where James Bond should have been standing. Luckily (and implausibly), the train in Skyfall was empty: although Javier Bardem was a villain, he had at least checked the schedules to cause minimum disruption to the service.
The cinematic possibilities of the Tube are as myriad as its destinations. It’s a great place for action and chases (The Bourne Ultimatum and Patriot Games got there before Skyfall). It’s a realm of concealment, strangeness and subterranean nightmares, but it’s a refuge, too. For filmmakers, the Tube is also very convenient: Not only does it boast controllable light and a steady climate, it can also provide a mirror image of the city above. And it’s a great place for your characters to bump into each other.
These qualities were evident to filmmakers from the start, judging by Anthony Asquith’s 1928 silent film, Underground, rereleased this week, and the first film ever to feature the Tube. As the movie’s opening title proclaims: “The underground of the great metropolis of the British empire, with its teeming multitudes of ‘all sorts and conditions of men,’ contributes its share of light and shade, romance and tragedy.” In the first scene, a jack-the-lad falls for the girl he sits next to. Moments later, so does the handsome attendant who picks up her dropped glove on the escalator. Before you know it, dark undertones are in play, as desire turns to jealousy, deception and revenge. It’s contrived, of course, but no more so than Gwyneth Paltrow’s romantic fate hingeing on which train she caught in Sliding Doors.
With its liveried workers, smoke-filled carriages and wooden escalators with instructions to “step off right foot first,” Underground seems charmingly antiquated today, but the film serves as a reminder that, even back in 1928, the Tube was a place of thrilling modernity. Cinema, like its audience, was captivated by the novelty of the urban experience. Murnau’s Sunrise, Lang’s Metropolis, Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera — all were made around the same time as Underground, and all grappled with the pleasures and pitfalls of the modern city.
As the shock of the new wore off, the dark side of the underground has come into its own, most memorably in An American Werewolf in London, where an unfortunate commuter is chased through Tottenham Court Road station by ... well, a camera. You barely saw the werewolf, and you didn’t need to. Eerie moans emanating from the black mouth of the tunnel and a panic dash through the tiled labyrinth of passages adequately conveyed the horror.
In 28 Weeks Later, it was zombies who brought the fear; and in 2004’s Creep, Franka Potente comes up against a tunnel-roving cannibal (having missed the last Tube home, of course, just like in Werewolf). The movie wasn’t all that scary, but the poster — of a bloody hand sliding down the window of a train — was. It ended up being banned from stations.
However, the award for Tube horrors must go to 1972’s ludicrous Death Line, in which the trapped 19th-century builders of the original tunnels have evolved into carnivorous sub-humans whose only remaining vocabulary is the mangled utterance: “Mind the doors.”