Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 55: Pool of London (1951)

Produced in the year after The Blue Lamp (1950), Pool of London shares similar thematic and narrative interests in criminal gangs (a jewellery heist in this case), car chases and delinquency. Although produced by the same team (Basil Dearden and Michael Relph), this film features little of the jovial camaraderie of P.C. Dixon and his colleagues, and feels more like the team’s effort to make a harder-edge crime drama, perhaps even influenced by some of the post-war American crime thrillers that were subsequently dubbed film noir. Yet despite some impressive stylistic touches, and an unusual setting, Pool of London is most noticeable for its attempt to blend together different issues and narrative ideas, leading to occasionally jarring shifts in tone and structure.

Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano) and Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron) are shipmates on the Dunbar, a boat recently docked next to London’s Tower Bridge. Dan is the wide boy petty smuggler (nylons, cigarettes) while the more morally upright black sailor Johnny is his best friend; Dan has a girl in port (possibly every port), Maisie (Moira Lister), while Johnny tends to avoid the city, sure that beyond its gleaming surface it is ‘filth, squalor, misery.’ Yet on this trip he meets and begins a tentative relationship with Pat (Susan Shaw). Meanwhile, Dan agrees to smuggle stolen goods from London to Amsterdam for Vernon (Max Adrian) and Alf (Alfie Bass), and he and Johnny get caught between a murderous criminal heist and a Scotland Yard manhunt.

While that description doesn’t encapsulate the full range of tangential elements within the film, it already begins to point up the dense nature of what the film is attempting to combine. First, there is documentary footage of the London docks (according to Barr, the film arose out of a documentary project) butted up against several sequences of stylised chiaroscuro lighting; there is the dramatic material of the heist and murder next to the comic presence of Dunbar’s chief engineer (James Robertson Justice), who alternately drinks, sleeps, reads poetry, and yells at the crew; there is the sexual attitudes of the shipmates to their women compared to Johnny’s burgeoning relationship with Pat (largely developed by her); and there is the film’s attempt to comment on race relations through different characters assumptions and attitudes towards Johnny. Throw in Vernon’s acrobatic criminal, cat fights between Maisie and her sister Pamela (Joan Dowling), Dan sleeping with shipmate Harry’s girl Sally (Renee Asherson), and a series of fast-paced car chases, and the film is constantly on the verge of tipping over into incoherence.

There are points where it loses that sense of balance, and it is unclear what direction the film wants to head in: this is most clear in the desire to pursue the heist and Johnny and Pat’s day out in London at the same time. There is little direct relationship between the two storylines (the main element is that, while on St. Paul’s roof, Pat spots Vernon on the roof of a building nearby), but the film intercuts between them, as though trying to suggest some thematic connection that simply doesn’t arise. Even the music in these sequences is different: stronger, dramatic work over the heist and murder; lighter, romantic for Pat and Johnny. Both sequences work in their own right – Earl Cameron’s performance as Johnny is strong, presenting a man who has no real home and whose skin colour means most people will not accept him (rejecting Pat’s notion that it doesn’t matter how or where people are born, but equally thoughtful as to what colour God is); and the heist is expertly cut together (there is a great visual trick with an unclaimed bottle of milk that pays off through the scene) – but this is the point where the film most obviously feels most like two different stories that happen to share the same space.

Yet while that portmanteau quality works in Dead of Night (1945) or Train of Events (1949), here there is a sense that everything has to be connected – the diamonds from the heist are in the package Johnny agrees to take on the ship for Dan – but those links are never consistent beyond the level of narrative requirement. Equally, the race issues the film obviously wants to engage with – which form a solid bond with Dearden’s later film Sapphire (1957) – don’t lead anywhere, and tell us very little about the characters who indulge in such casual racism (such as Maisie, theatre guard, the police), or Johnny himself, the victim of it. Cameron and Colleano are called upon to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting throughout, and it is a shame to see Moira Lister (who was impressive in 1948s Another Shore) reduced to a shrill and mannered performance as working class Maisie.

What sticks in my mind after watching the film is its visual style: there are beautifully composed shots of the docks, mainly at night, well-shot shadowy streets and morally dubious characters (Maisie and Dan are often bathed in shadow, with bars of light across their face); the images of a deserted Sunday morning in the City of London (and the bombed out areas, a notable characteristic of Ealing films from Hue and Cry (1947) on) create a strong background for the heist, occurring in the shadow of St. Pauls; while the final atmospheric car chase through Rotherhithe tunnel is also a highlight, a set piece that feels almost Hitchcockian, as Vernon clambers (acrobatically) over a domed air vent and ends up falling from a pipe into the tunnel below. But ultimately, the film never feels as coherent or as powerful as the sum of its parts.

[Pool of London is released by Studio Canal, see for more details]

Next time, the sport of kings takes centre stage in The Rainbow Jacket (1954)...

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