Tuesday, August 21, 2012

COOL FLICKS: Tiger Bay (1959)

It's the story of a girl, a gun and a killer. The girl wants the gun, the killer wants the girl and his gun, and the police want all three. What makes this movie different than other typical noir trios is that the girl this time is literally a girl. That's right. She's twelve years old. Like most girls she falls for the killer, but it's strictly platonic. She knows the guy is good at heart, she's seen him that way. She'll do anything to protect him. Even --gasp-- lie. And in some ways this relationship is much deeper and purer than any of those other girl meets killer tales in crime drama cinema.


When J. Lee Thompson was looking for the child actor to play the lead role in Tiger Bay he was first only looking for boys. But when John Mills came to audition for the role of the police superintendent he brought along his young daughter Hayley whose tomboyish looks and wild antics made Thompson think of a different angle. There was no reason that the part had to be a boy. He had her read for the part and she duly impressed the director with her antics and freshness. No matter that she was imitating TV ads- the character was immediately changed to a girl with Hayley Mills in the role.

Mills made her screen debut aside her father John Mills, and German actor Horst Buchholz, also making a debut of sorts in his first English speaking role. The pairing of Hayley and Horst makes for a scintillating chemistry and it is largely due to these two actors that Tiger Bay remains one of the more remarkable films in the crime and thriller genre.

There have been films prior to this one in which children are eyewitnesses to a crime, notably The Window (1949), but I am almost positive that this is the first in which a child witnesses a crime, covets the murder weapon, and then befriends the killer. The story is fairly simple yet compactly told with strong visuals that emphasize the subtle social conscience of the piece. Spying and lying are recurrent themes that Thompson, along with screenwriters Shelley Smith and John Hawksworth, expresses in some imaginative shots focussing on Gillie's covert antics and deceitful ways.


Gillie (Hayley Mills) is a tomboy ostracized by the local boys who play violent games with cap guns. She wants to be included but she can't because he doesn't have a gun. "But I've got a bomb!" she brags referring to a device that sets off caps when it's thrown to the ground. She's knocked to the ground herself and the "bomb" stolen from her. A fight ensues between Gillie and two boys. Just when things look like they're going to get very out of hand an older boy breaks up the fight and gets the bullies to return Gillie her bomb. A passing stranger (Horst Buchholz) - an itinerant sailor on his way to his girlfriend's house - needs help finding an address. Turns out it the address happens to be the very building where Gillie lives and she points it out to him.


This opening sequence sets the stage for the relationship that quickly develops over the course of the movie. Gillie already intrigued by this sailor who seems to be a decent chap will see him in a new light shortly after meeting him when a violent argument attracts her attention. She sneaks upstairs, peers through the letter slot in the front door of a neighbor's apartment and witnesses a terrible row between the sailor and a woman - who must be his girlfriend.


The row ends with several gunshots and the woman on the floor. Gillie continues watching as the sailor leaves the apartment with the gun, then hides it behind a radiator in the hallway. Here's her chance to outdo the boys with mere cap guns. She eyes the gun like a pirate's hidden treasure and ever so slowly extracts it from hits hiding place. Carefully, tenderly she holds it in her hand and then the door bursts open again. The sailor looks for the gun and it's gone. He looks up and sees Gillie.


She looks at him defiantly. Then realizes the stupid thing she's just been caught doing.


There's a chase sequence with some eye catching high camera angles and clever maneuvering on Gillie's part to escape her pursuer. Luckily, for Gillie someone happens to be coming up the stairs as the sailor tries coming down. She manages to get in her home with the gun which she stows away in a hiding place.

The gun is Gillie's key to being ultra cool. She even sneaks it under her choir robes and shows it off to her pal Dai during a church service. She's better than a boy. She's a girl with a real gun. But Branik, the sailor, is hot on her trail and has followed her to the church determined to get his gun and keep her quiet. Their meeting in the choir loft will change everything between them. In a matter of minutes Gillie goes from power mad, wannbe tough girl with a gun to frightened kid to compassionate friend. It shouldn't really work, but it does. It's a remarkable scene with Buchholz breaking down in utter helplessness and turning to a statue of the Virgin Mary as he prays for guidance to help him out of his dilemma. There's Gillie watching him fascinated, puzzled and ultimately moved by his sincerity and remorse. It's this moment that helps create the bond that ties them together for the remainder of the movie. Even with the cutesy storybook pact they make to sail the seven seas together they end up creating a profound relationship that almost transcends casual friendship and approaches pure love.

Like all couples on the run Gillie and Branik will have their romantic idyll, a separation, a series of captures and escapes, a test of loyalty and a final parting. All the while Supt. Graham (John Mills) is trying to get Gillie to recognize that lies do more harm than good. A race against the clock finds Gillie in the hot seat as she tries to spin lie after lie, draw out an already agonizing near third degree, hoping against hope that her dalliance and subterfuge will allow enough time to pass and enable her sailor friend to escape on a ship headed for Argentina.

Dr. Das (Marne Maitland) reveals that Branko's girlfriend was not so faithful.
There are fine supporting performances from a handful of excellent British character actors who all made their mark in crime and horror films. Hammer Horror contract player Marne Maitland (The Reptile, Stranglers of Bombay, Terror of the Tongs, etc.) is Dr. Das, Branik's landlord. He has a brief yet telling scene with Buchholz (with whom he will later appear in Nine Hours to Rama) that provides some crucial information about Branik's relationship with his cheating girlfriend. Anthony Dawson, best known as the hapless Swan in Dial M for Murder and for being the hands and voice of Blofeld in two Bond films, plays Barclay -- the married man who was housing and clothing Branik's girl. Even the role of Gillie's mother is given to an actress from Crime Cinema Hall of Fame. She is played by veteran actress Megs Jenkins who will always be remembered as the plump, slyly witty Nurse Woods in Green for Danger.

Barclay (Anthony Dawson, center) reluctantly admits his secret life to Supt Graham (John Mills, right)
Mrs Phillips (Megs Jenkins, center) wishes her daughter would just tell the truth.

Here is a brief section of the eyewitness murder sequence. The entire film is available from a variety of online film sites. A retail DVD of Tiger Bay exists only in Region 2 from Image Entertainment and is of exceptional quality. Sadly, there is no Region 1 DVD that I could find for sale.


10 comments:

  1. Great review John - the region 2 DVD is really well-worth getting for those with multi-region setup and has a commentary from Hayley Mills - interesting to contrast this film with her role in WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND where she also attached herself to a man in trouble with the law though the tone is very different. Fascinating to see J. Lee Thompson in the first flush of his success in the 1950s (YIELD TO THE NIGHT and ICE COLD IN ALEX especially) before he really settled into a rut of coarse and mechanical Charles Brownson thrillers and unspeakable horrors for Cannon after his Hollywood back-to-back big budget Gregory Peck hits GUNS OF NAVARONE and CAPE FEAR.

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    1. Yield to the Night comes up as Blonde Sinner at imdb.com. Do you know if it's available on DVD? I can Region 2 is OK I can watch them on my laptop. If not, do you know where I can find it? I'd love to see Diana Dors as directed by Thompson. She was a hoot in Danger Route and I still remember her opposite Brandon de Wilde doing an impressive turn as a nutso teen in that infamous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" episode from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

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    2. Hi John, definitely available as a region 2 (which I have)- it is a pretty decent disc in terms of picture quality - not in the same class as TOGER BAY but perfectly acceptable. It is available quite cheaply on its own and as part of a Dirs box set which si also inexpensive - here is a link to both: http://amzn.to/T2bZH5

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  2. She was a terrific child actress, wasn't she? I saw WHISTLE not too long ago but not this one in years.

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  3. Wow...the paths one's career will take. I've never come across this one (unlike WHISTLE) so thanks for the thorough rundown...

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    1. You must be referring to Thompson's directing. From Tiger Bay to Guns of Navarone to Cape Fear to St. Ives to Death Wish 4 to Happy Birthday to Me. Almost as bad as what happened to Bette Davis' acting career.

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  4. I would have bought this a while back but for the DVD incompatibility. After this review would really like to see it!

    I think this film came up in that odd discussion we had a while back of Horst Buchholz. I originally saw him in One, Two, Three! and thought he was a dynamite actor. He didn't do much English language film though. Most people know him as the young hothead in The Magnificent Seven, the Seven Samurai knock-off.

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    1. Yes, I did mention this movie back in those comments when Horst came up quite by accident. ("Trafficking in Old Books" post) He shows great range in this movie. He even has a typically Horst over-the-top comic bit when he tells a story to Gillie about his run in with pirates and acts out all the parts donning a hat made out of newspaper. Later in the film Hayley Mills does an impression of him when she is asked by the police to re-enact the murder she witnessed. This really is a great little movie. Enthusiastically recommended - whether you love Horst or Hayley or not.

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  5. I never realised Shelley Smith was involved with the screenplay. One of the best British crime writers of the 50s.

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    1. Yes! Her love of narrative play can definitely be seen in the scenes with Branik telling a story that he acts out and later Gillie's reenactment of what she saw through the letter slot.

      I didn't mention that TIGER BAY is based on "Rodolphe et le Revolver" by French crime writer Noel Calef. His most famous novel Ascenseur pour l'échafaud was adapted for the screen in France and is best known under the English title Elevator to the Gallows, a very fine crime thriller directed by Louis Malle that rivals anything by Hitchcock. In fact, I think it's better than some of his movies.

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