‘It’s the first time I’ve been ashore in London and I haven’t wanted to go back to sea.’
Another welcome Ealing Studios reissue that has been sympathetically restored, like Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945). Although Pool of London features the criminal gang style plottings of the more famous comedies of The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) this is a complex crime and social drama which, when it does use comedy (the chief seaman’s brandy quaffing and reading The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner) or dark, subtle and social asides, these elements always add to plot, characterisation or realism of the environment.
Guys, girls and gangs combine in the few days that the Dunbar is at port in London between its transporting business for The Amalgamated Steamship Company transporting goods between England and Holland. The crew have a few days of leave before heading back to sea which – for many of them – means wine, women and relaxation, if they can get any contraband, such as stockings for their girls, past customs officers. Among the crew are friends Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano) and Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), who head out for the night life, Johnny helping his friend smuggle a small number of the packets of cigarettes that Dan wants to sell. Dan has connections that lead him to a further negotiation with music-hall acrobat Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian), who is part of a nefarious gang who have, unbeknownst to Dan, planned a heist, the proceeds of which will need peddling abroad, and they agree to give Dan £100 for the transit of a small package to Rotterdam. Jamaican born Johnny is finding the normal tedium of life ashore very different to his usual on-land excursions when he meets Pat (Susan Shaw), the cashier at the theatre where Charlie performs. They enjoy spending time together. Meanwhile happy-go-lucky-go-girl-getter Dan is trying to remain with his alleged fiancée Maisie (Moira Lister) who lives and quarrels with her sister Pamela (Joan Dowling). The gang go ahead with their planned robbery but while they get the goods, the bank’s security guard is killed and the police are swift on the pursuit. Dan is initially unaware of the whole situation and is given the package to deliver, but soon discovers what this bundle contains and becomes the major suspect. Furthermore, he’s asked his best friend to smuggle the goods aboard the Dunbar.
A riveting and complex drama that is well written, acted and directed, Pool of London is a film that seems all the more surprising given its mere 85 minute running time, as so many characters develop within the situations over the few days in which the film is set. It is the very definition of well constructed concise film-making, taking in themes of romance and social issues alongside the thrills and action. At the heart of the film lies the friendship between two seamen, Dan and Johnny, and the extraordinary events that these days will have on their lives. It is also a film about location, where the capital city with its social differences place the film very much in its era, from the lavish shots of Tower Bridge, the ongoing post-war reconstruction and the effect of smog and transport within the landscape providing the sepia tone to its exterior settings. Its internal locations also provide a sense of place, from the robbery in an old building to the underground roadways and the pubs, music-halls and homes that place the characters in context. And the action sequences where the police pursue the criminals show two fast and very well shot car chases through the (not nearly as congested as today!) London streets.
A rare aspect for a film of its time is the emerging relationship between Johnny and Pam which provides a significant emotional element. Johnny faces racism and disapproving looks, and is even perceived as the likely scapegoat for the piece – ‘Give it to the coloured boy’. The couple’s Sunday date together includes a trip to the Maritime Museum at Greenwich and reveal Johnny’s desire to finance his education. He has one question: ‘You wonder why one man is born white and one isn’t’, to which Pam insists ‘It doesn’t matter’, but he is less convinced due to the frequent abuse he receives – ‘They’re all the same’. It is a very moving scene within the whole scenario and more so because of the time of production. Earl Cameron CBE notes in the accompanying interview on this DVD release that his stage career had previously led to minor roles in film but that this one was different. He was called to interview at short notice and describes how he got the role – ‘I said I’m 26, I was 32 at the time’ – as well as how he felt when he was given the script to read. ‘Every second page was Johnny, I thought this I’ve got to get’. He also notes that, despite getting rave reviews for his role, ‘It was over a year before I got my next part’.
Tense, dramatic and compelling Pool of London is a taut film packed with action, romance and thrills. Essential, evocative film-making.