Tiger Bay, released in 1959, marked the film debut of 12-year-old Hayley Mills and few actresses have had such an extraordinarily impressive start to a film career. This is a crime thriller but it’s also a bit more than that - it’s a film about friendship and loyalty and duty and moral dilemmas.
A Polish sailor, Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) discovers that his girlfriend has dumped him for another man and in a moment of madness and rage he kills her. The murder is witnessed by an 11-year-old girl, Gillie (Hayley Mills). Gillie also finds the murder weapon, a revolver. Korchinsky tracks her down to find out exactly how much she knows and this marks the beginning of an odd and rather touching friendship.
Meanwhile Superintendent Graham (John Mills) has begun his investigation and it soon becomes apparent that Gillie may be a key witness. The problem is that Gillie is an inveterate (and expert) liar. Superintendent Graham has no idea how much of what she has told him is true. Apart from the fact that Gillie lies from force of habit she is also now lying to protect her friend Korchinsky.
Korchinsky and Gillie are on the run while the police are distracted by another suspect.
All Korchinsky has to do is get a place among the crew of another ship and once the ship is beyond the 3-mile limit he is safe. He won’t have to worry about extradition since although Superintendent Graham is sure that he’s the killer the evidence against him is extremely weak. Graham has to get his man in custody before he can get away so that he can build his case. He’s hoping Gillie will provide the evidence he needs but this is far from certain since she’s about as uncooperative a witness as you could ever come across.
There might not be anything startlingly original in the mystery plot but the screenplay (by John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith) has enough suspense to keep the audience satisfied.
Much more interesting is the odd friendship between Korchinsky and Gillie. They’re both somewhat adrift emotionally. Korchinsky’s girlfriend betrayed him while Gillie’s parents are dead. There’s nothing creepy about the friendship. To Gillie Korchinsky is perhaps a combination of father figure, big brother figure and (given that Korchinsky is himself a bit child-like) idealised best friend. One assumes that Korchinsky sees Gillie as representing the daughter he might have had if things had worked out for him. It’s an oddly touching friendship and a tragic one since we know it’s unlikely to have a happy ending.
There’s a definite touch of film noir to Tiger Bay. Korchinsky is a nice guy whose whole world suddenly collapsed on him and a split second of madness completed his ruin.
His friendship with Gillie seems to offer him a possible path to redemption but we have our doubts as to whether there can be any escape for him. He and Gillie have found friendship but it’s a kind of childish fantasy and reality is remorselessly closing in on them.
Eric Cross’s moody black-and-white cinematography adds to the noir feel.
Mention should also be made of the wonderful locations in Cardiff’s docklands, sadly all now demolished and replaced by soulless modern horrors.
J. Lee Thompson had an inconsistent career but he directed a handful of bona fide masterpieces and this is one of them. He’s in complete command, the pacing is tight and the overall atmosphere is an interesting but effective mix of noir bleakness and bucolic idyll.
John Mills is very solid in a not terribly demanding role. Horst Buchholz, a kind of German James Dean (although a much better actor than Dean), is superb. He plays Korchinsky as a kind of innocent and it works.
The movie however belongs to Hayley Mills. Her performance is extraordinarily confident and accomplished. Gillie could have been an irritating stereotype but she comes across as likeable, believable and sympathetic. In the original screenplay the character was a boy. This changed when John Mills was cast and it suddenly occurred to J. Lee Thompson that the character could just as easily be a girl and that the actor’s daughter Hayley might well be ideal for the role.
The movie’s greatest strength is its ability to deal with its subject matter without resorting to cheap sentimentality or crude emotional manipulation.
Tiger Bay offers a good thriller plot, great acting, inspired direction and an intelligent and sensitive treatment of the dilemmas of friendship and loyalty. Very highly recommended.