Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is an embittered hardboiled newspaper reporter who covers the waterfront for The Standard. He’s tired of the job and he’s tired of the city and he’s very very tired of the waterfront. This is the middle of the Depression though and even if he hates it it is a good job and he’s good at it. He’s a good newspaperman. That’s why he hates himself so much. All self-respecting good newspapermen hate themselves, because it’s a dirty job and you can only succeed if you have no morals at all. You don’t get good stories by being a Boy Scout.
Joe has found what he thinks is a very good story. He’s convinced that local fisherman Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is involved in a racket bringing Chinese illegal immigrants into the country. He just can’t find hard evidence. Eli is cunning and ruthless and if he’s boarded and searched by the Coast Guard he makes sure he destroys the evidence beforehand. He does this is an effective but brutal way, by throwing the illegal immigrants overboard (weighted with chains so they sink real fast).
Joe realises this could be his big opportunity. If he romances Julie he might get some information on Eli’s people-smuggling operation. It’s a mean low-down cynical thing to do but he’s a reporter and such things come naturally to him. Of course there are going to be complications. Julie is a sweet kid and he gets to be rather fond of her, especially after he sleeps with her. Their spending the night together follows a memorably clever and slightly kinky seduction scene (that’s assuming you think that chaining a girl up so you can kiss her qualifies as kinky). He could fall in love with a girl like Julie (it’s not that easy to find girls who like being chained up after all).
There’s at least one pretty exciting action scene. There’s plenty of atmosphere - the waterfront itself becomes a character in the movie. There’s hardboiled dialogue. There’s shocking, and unusual, crime. There’s romance. There’s a decent plot and the pacing is lively.
Ben Lyon is reasonably good as Joe although an actor with a bit more charisma would have helped. Colbert does her best to generate the required sexual heat and since that was something she was pretty good at (OK it was something she was very good at) she almost succeeds but somehow the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there. You can understand why Joe falls for Julie. This is Claudette Colbert at her most beautiful and she has those big big eyes and any man with a pulse would fall for her. It’s not so clear why Julie would fall for the morose and cynical Joe. He doesn’t even have a bad boy vibe going for him.
I found a copy of this movie in one of those Mill Creek public domain compilation boxed sets, their Diva 20-movie pack (which I don’t even remember buying). The transfer is iffy in places but generally watchable.
I Cover the Waterfront is slightly racy fast-moving entertainment and Claudette Colbert in fine form is hard to resist. It’s a lot better than most pre-code movies because it doesn’t just rely on its mildly risque elements. Highly recommended.