Before Hayley Mills became a Disney superstar with her performance in Pollyanna, she did one British film: Tiger Bay. She wasn’t even supposed to be in it originally. The script called for a boy, but when director J. Lee Thompson visited John Mills, who was to appear in the movie, he saw his daughter Hayley Mills playing at the house and asked if John Mills would be willing to let her take a screen test. He liked her so much that he changed the role from a boy to a girl.
Tiger Bay is a port city in Cardiff, Wales. A boat docks and Polish immigrant Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) disembarks. He is in an expectantly happy mood, on his way to his apartment to see his girlfriend, Anya (Yvonne Mitchell), and ask her to marry him. But when he arrives there, he cannot find her and eventually tracks her down at another apartment complex, where he discovers that she has left him and is now being kept by another, richer, man. Living in the apartment complex is also Gillie Evans (Haylay Mills), who is an orphan and lives with her aunt (Megs Jenkins). She’s a chronic liar, a bit of an imp, and a tomboy who just wants to play cowboys and Indians with the rest of the kids on the street, though they won’t let her because she does not have a toy gun.
When Bronislav and Anya get into an argument, Gillie hears them and curiously peeks through the letterbox. Bronislav is telling Anya that he wants to marry her, but she can’t stand the fact that he is a sailor and is always gone. They argue and she insults him and Bronislav begins to lose his temper. Finally, Anya grabs a gun, which he takes from her and in a burst of blind passion, shoots her with it. He runs out of the apartment and hides the gun, which Gillie takes to show to her friends.
The police question everyone, one of whom is Inspector Graham (John Mills), who has an inkling that Gillie is lying to him about what she knows. But the inspector is most interested in tracking down the man who was keeping Anya in the apartment, a sports announcer named Barclay (Anthony Dawson). While Inspector Graham investigates, Bronislav knows that Gillie has his gun and follows her to take it back, but realizes that she also saw everything. But Gillie likes him and when she finds out he’s a sailor, begs him to take her with him. He realizes that if he can keep her with him until he gets a ship out of England, then she won’t be able to tell the police. He agrees that she can come with him, intending to leave her just before he sails.
They hide outside the city and the police begin to search for Gillie and discover there could be another man besides Barclay involved. But the movie is not a police drama. The heart of the story is between Gillie and Bronislav. Although a murderer, he’s not a psychopath. You can see at the beginning of the film that he likes kids and when he meets Gillie, he has a natural way with talking to children. In some ways, he’s a big kid, himself. Gillie, somewhat lonely, completely attaches herself to Bronislav. These two people, without a trace of queasy pedophilia, form a deep bond of affection and both are ultimately willing to do anything for the other person. Gillie will lie and mislead the police and in the end Bronislav must sacrifice his chance for freedom to save her.
Tiger Bay has a very realistic feel to it. There are lots of scenes of the docks and the poor, ethnically diverse neighborhoods. But though the neighborhoods are comprised of blacks and immigrants, the police force is entirely Anglo-Saxon and there is an inherent undercurrent of antagonism between the police and the rest of the people, which puts many of the people automatically on Bronislav’s side against the police. In contrast, there is also the smarmy, rich guy trying to weasel out of a murder charge without having his name besmirched.
John Mills as Inspector Graham, is a wonderful presence in the film. With a touch of wry humor, he steadily works his way towards his goal. The scenes between him and his real-life daughter are well-rendered, made even more interesting by the fact that the audience knows he’s really her father. He tries to ferret out the truth as her story constantly changes. But however much Gillie doesn’t want to betray Bronislav, he is able to use her inconsistencies to learn what he wants. The irony is that Gillie proves Bronislav’s ultimate downfall. But the touching thing about it is that Bronislav doesn’t blame her. What makes the ending so beautiful (I don’t think I’m betraying anything too unexpected when I say that he does not manage to escape) is the complete, accepting affection for each other.
I was thinking about it afterwards, and what struck me is that it is not clear that anybody has changed by the end of the film. He’s not necessarily a better person, she’s not necessarily going to stop being a liar. He’s going to prison and she’s going to return to her life with her aunt. What makes the movie touching is not that caring changes a person, but that people care at all. The point is that to love is a beautiful and ennobling thing in and of itself, regardless of what it does for you. It is good simply to care.
Horst Buchholz makes a very endearing Bronislav and although you are repelled by the act of murder, he’s still sympathetic. He’s done a terrible thing, but he can’t change it. He’s stuck with it and can only move forward. He and Hayley Mills also have a sweet rapport. The film was meant to introduce him, a German actor, to the English public, but what it really did was launch Hayley Mills’ career. As soon as Walt Disney saw the movie, he knew he’d found the person he wanted for Pollyanna.
The movie is currently on youtube.