Mind the cannibal: From Sliding Doors to Skyfall, cinema's obsession with the Tube

The London Underground, which turns 150 next week, has played host to countless directors looking for atmosphere. Geoffrey Macnab shares his top tickets
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Cannibals lurk in its tunnels. Spurned lovers have thrown themselves in front of its trains. Skeletal remains of aliens have been found buried beneath its lines. Spies have chased one another along its carriages. Football fans have thronged its platforms. Kids have passed through its stations on their way to magical worlds. Killers have used it to try to flee and to melt into its crowds. Famous directors have made cameo appearances in its carriages. Welcome to the London Underground as portrayed on film.

The London Underground celebrates its 150th anniversary on Thursday. To mark the occasion, Anthony Asquith's 1928 silent classic Underground is being re-released in a restored version. The pompous opening intertitle to Underground hints at just why London's rickety, subterranean transport system exercises such fascination for so many film-makers.

"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 and all those things that go to make up what we call 'life'," reads the card. The film then plunges us into a melodramatic tale of "ordinary, work-a-day people." There is Bert (Cyril McLaglen), a roistering Jack-the-lad in a flat cap who is on the prowl for women to pick up. There is Nell (Elissa Landi), the girl he tries to impress when they're in the carriage together somewhere near Warren Street. There is Bill (Brian Aherne), the Underground worker who also takes a shine to Nell. Then, there is the forlorn Kate (Norah Baring), the seamstress in love with Bill but continually mistreated by him.

Underground emphasises the sheer hustle and bustle of the Tube, the fact that so many strangers are thrown together in such crammed proximity. Their behaviour changes. They fall silent and they close in on themselves. Asquith relishes the comedy of the man trying to read his neighbour's newspaper or the commuter stepping on someone's toe or the traveller desperately trying to find a strap to hold onto and stokes up the erotic tension as passers-by flirt with one another. The film was shot at Waterloo Station and (historians think) at Bank. The finale is at the Lots Road Power Station, which provided power to the Underground network. There is something innately dramatic about the Tube settings – the trains wending their way through darkened tunnels, the unrelenting crowds heading up and down the escalators, and the constant arrivals and departures.

The Tube is often used in passing by film-makers. Relatively few set entire films in its cavernous environs. One of the very best that does so is Gary Sherman's Death Line (1972) (or Raw Meat as it was called in the US), a horror film with a sense of humour and a sharp instinct for social observation. It is set around a series of disappearances at Russell Square Underground station. Donald Pleasence is the curmudgeonly police officer with a terrible cold who is investigating the disappearances while railing against his supercilious boss (Christopher Lee) and growing ever more irritated with the hippies who fill the city. The villain turns out to be a cannibal descended from Victorian-era workers who were trapped beneath ground by a cave-in. Abandoned, presumed dead, his family set up their own little subterranean colony. As Pleasence discovers, they are now dying out. The cannibal (Hugh Armstrong), who looks like Fagin from Oliver Twist, is picking on passing travellers to bring back to feed to his sickly wife.

Death Line plays up the gothic quality of its Underground settings: its gloom and its chequered history. Workers have suffered and even died to build these tunnels and platforms in the bowels of London. They have been abandoned and driven to cannibalism.

The film was an obvious inspiration for Christopher Smith's later Creep (2004), which features a woman who misses the last train home, is locked in and then finds herself stalked by a hideously deformed creature. Death Line, in its turn, may well have been influenced by Quatermass and the Pit (1967), the Hammer sci-fi movie in which something very nasty lurks in the bowels of an Underground station.

One of the surprises of the autumn was that Bob Crow, RMT General Secretary, failed to call a strike on the Underground in response to the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. The film, which features the Underground prominently with an extended chase sequence as well as a spectacular crash, shows one Underground worker looking particularly gormless as Daniel Craig's Bond rushes through the driver's cab in pursuit of Javier Bardem's villain. Though fleeting, it was not a portrayal that flattered the Underground staff in any way at all. They were the befuddled bystanders as 007 did his best to rescue the nation.

Skyfall was far from the first film to use the Underground as a backdrop for action. From The Fourth Protocol to The Bourne Ultimatum, there are plenty of other movies that also go underground for chase or surveillance sequences. At the same time, the Underground is a favourite setting for film-makers dealing with doomed or difficult love affairs. David Lean's The Passionate Friends (1949), an embroiled story about love, marriage and adultery, features an extraordinary finale. The wife (Ann Todd), cast out by her husband (Claude Rains) because of his suspicion about her continuing involvement with another man, heads in a daze to a near deserted Underground station. She walks down the escalator like a woman descending into Hades. Lean shows her face in lambent, suffering close-up. She stands at the edge of the platform, waiting for the train. The wind blows her hair as the train nears. Then, just as we expect her to jump to her death, her husband appears and pulls her back from the brink.

In Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea (2011), there is a similar sequence. Rachel Weisz is the adulterous heroine, again suffering in lambent close-up with the wind from the train ruffling her hair. First, she is on her own. Then, in a phantasmagoric flashback sequence, the camera tracks along Aldwych Station, now acting as a makeshift bomb shelter during the Blitz with the assembled, ghostly looking Londoners singing a mournful but defiant version of "Molly Malone".

Alongside the horror movies, action films and heavily embroiled love stories, the Underground has also played host to lighter fare. Ealing films and romantic comedies have had their moments on the Tube too. The experiences of nine London Underground travellers were dramatised in 1999 portmanteau picture Tube Tales. Peter Howitt's Sliding Doors (1998) used the Krzysztof Kieslowski-like conceit of alternate storylines as it followed Gwyneth Paltrow's Bridget Jones-like sacked PR exec. In one strand, she catches the Tube, thereby meeting charming stranger John Hannah. In the other, the doors slide shut, she misses the train and the direction of her life is altered.

It is striking how little has changed in the way film-makers approach the Tube since Anthony Asquith's Underground and Alfred Hitchcock ventured below ground in Blackmail (1929.) If you're a film-maker looking for metaphors for hell or for the unconscious, it is down to the Tube you still might go. If you want crowd scenes in which young and old, rich and poor are thrown together, the Underground provides them. Those same stories of light and shade, romance and tragedy that Asquith tapped can still be found today, somewhere on the line.

'Underground' is released on 11 January to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the London Underground

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine