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.
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.|
|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.