Tiger Bay (1959)

Horst Bucholtz has always held a soft spot in my heart. There are several very simple reasons. My father’s favorite movie might be The Magnificent Seven, and I grew up watching this young raffish upstart join forces with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen against the forces that be. Then, years later, there he was again as an old man in La Vita è Bella. Somehow it served the movie and my own history with him well, to see him this way. A mere 5 years later he would be gone.

Of course, Tiger Bay, if you’ve never been acquainted with it before, is the picture that really put him on the map, at least for English-speaking audiences. And it’s easy to see why. He was advertised once upon a time as Germany’s James Dean, and if the comparison makes a modicum of sense at all it has to do with how masculinity can be at one time violent and then sensitive. There would be no other way for him to hold the movie together with Hayley Mills so well. More on that in a moment.

I must take a moment to acknowledge my growing esteem for J. Lee Thompson in recent days because although I am a fan of Cape Fear and not so big an admirer of The Guns of Navarone, it was earlier in his career where he showed his capability with material like Yield to the Night and here in Tiger Bay. The world is easy to place, especially in England with a working-class port town acting as a window to the world. One of the men fresh off one of these ships is the youthful sailor Bronislav Korchinsky, who looks to be reunited with his lover.

Hayley Mills makes her screen debut moments later as a feisty tomboyish pipsqueak ready to roughhouse with all the other street rats. She gleams with a delightful impudence, those large searching eyes of her projecting curiosity and at times rebellion. Her aunt is always scolding her and she always scampers around bumping into neighbors on the stairs or eavesdropping on conversations she has no business in.

One of them is between Korchinsky and his girlfriend Anya. But the scene before us is hardly bliss. It comes seething with angst and vindictive daggers you feel like would hardly have been in vogue across the pond at the same time — at least in mainstream Hollywood. As the woman scoffs at the money he sent home and lets him have it in their native tongue, it becomes apparent this kind of gritty vitriol might only seep into an American noir picture.

In fact, if there is any immediate reference point, it’s possible to find Tiger Bay reminiscent of The Window. However, in this case, Gillie Evans (Mills) is not so much a “kid who’s cried wolf” as a serial annoyance no rational-minded adult looks to take seriously. Still, she’s an eyewitness to what looks to be a shooting. A woman’s dead and the man is on the lam. What’s more, in the moment of initial tumult they crossed paths as he streaked away, and she nicked the evidence to bring back to her aunt’s apartment. For her, this entire scene feels like a novel curiosity, but she thinks little of the consequences in the moment.

Instead, she dodges the inspector’s gentle interrogations (John Mills) before rushing off to drop into church service late, taking up her spot in the choir while still packing the purloined pistol.

It’s fitting that in one moment they seem to be singing a hymn out of Psalm 23 and suddenly the spiritual journey through the valley of the shadow of death becomes all too real. There stands a familiar face in the crowded pews and suddenly her self-assured nonchalance drops off in the middle of her solo. There’s the man!

It feels like a showdown set up for Hitchcockian dread as the church clears out and she’s left to fend for her own against the crazed young man. This can only end poorly. And yet Tiger Bay works because the villain in this equation is not a horrible human being. There are moments he could press his advantage, whether it’s pushing her to her death or doing away with her with the gun, but this is not his character.

In fact, in its best and brightest moments, Buckholtz and young Mills become the welcomed nucleus of the movie, at first as wary adversaries and then companions and finally friends capable of playacting in the morning light. For a few moments, they are able to shed all the worries of the world and enjoy being in one another’s company.

In the latter half, it takes on a different tilt altogether as a little girl, now beholden to her new friend, looks to buy him time as he looks to sneak off on a ship out to sea. We have ticking clocks and stakes, all those storytelling tricks of the trade, but the core of the entire story is the relational capital that we build. It becomes a new, far more compelling kind of movie. Because now a child must live in the ambiguity of the moment and how are they to decipher the difference between right and wrong and what those terms even mean?

The ending feels a bit prolonged and drawn out for its own good though it’s kept afloat by this underlying relational tension. A man’s life hangs in the balance as Mills drags his real-life daughter out to sea to identify the purported killer before he can get away for good.

John Mills feels generally flat and uninteresting if a mostly benevolent authority representing a prevailing moralism. Otherwise, this picture has much to offer and a colorful perspective on the world circa 1959.

Suddenly, British society, cinematography notwithstanding, doesn’t look quite so monochrome. Because of course, it wasn’t. It’s a world of Polish immigrants, vibrant Calypso music on the street corners, and foreign sailors who are not totally subservient to the British powers. It’s a reminder that ports really can be windows to the world even as they can also bring disparate people together.

3.5/5 Stars

Whistle Down The Wind (1961)

Whistle Down The Wind feels like it employs the “kitchen sink” aesthetic in step with British film of the day, bleak and tough around the corners with working-class folks coping with all kinds of toilsome drama. However, if the mantle of that zeitgeist was normally carried by the likes of Albert Finney and Richard Harris, then effectively we have the “angry young men” of the subgenre replaced by children.

It gives the picture a slightly different if altogether refreshing perspective on these same issues. At its center is young Kathy Bostock (Hayley Mills); she lives on a farm with her father (Bernard Lee), an aunt, and the aunt’s two children.

They are three rambunctious little farmhands but not altogether wicked, mind you. They come home with three discarded kittens in tow, looking to sneak past the prying eyes of their betters, so they might raise them in the barn. As such, it provides a safe haven and becomes an even more sacred space given what happens next.

Young Kathy is alone busying herself with their charges, and then she sees a stranger (Alan Bates), rather haggard and disoriented. Both man and child are shocked and as she inquires who he is, he utters the words, “Jesus Christ.”

Now many an adult could tell you lots of people exclaiming the Lord’s name are using it in vain, but this never crosses Kathy’s mind. Whatever you might think of her, whether foolish or otherwise, she takes the name very seriously.

This naive misunderstanding is what the entire movie turns on, and it’s a lovely bit of irony. It takes all our cynical assumptions about these people and their world and completely turns them on their heads. Suddenly, we have this glorious portrait of child-like faith set before us, and this only works because Bryan Forbes’ picture allows children to hold such a central place in the story from the outset.

They are funny and mischievous and yet so very sincere in spirit. A cat can be named Spider, and it’s completely honest to gripe and groan about everything little thing. There are these sublime closeups sprinkled through that, even momentarily, allow us to be in their place and empathize. I think of one where the little boy Charlie (Alan Barnes), always at odds with the girls nevertheless, peers over at the man in the hay, and his face lights up. Curiosity getting the better of him, he asks if it’s really Him? He too wants to believe this is the Christ.

This comparison might be tenuous, but rather like the internal logic of It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife, there’s something pleasant and powerful about the spiritual reaching into our human environments. We want to believe in their benevolence — that they are able to redeem our families and hardships, with a bit of divine intervention.

There’s still a sense that the spiritual world enters into our lives of its own accord. In fact, there is no true distinction between one and the other, whether they be kindly angels or guests in the haystack. They have the capacity to invade the everyday and breathe new life into it while still feeling almost mundane.

If you’re like me, sometimes religious allegory can feel too on point and obvious. It’s not exactly subtle here, but there’s something about the context that still makes it delightful. After receiving further spiritual insight from their Sunday school teacher, we have the procession of three little kings returning into the presence of their visitor, complete with a musical cue to send them on their way.

The hypothetical question of what to do if Jesus came back takes on very concrete meaning for them because of course, he’s lying right there in their barn waiting for them. And so, with all sincerity, they bring their gifts to place before him. They want him to feel welcome. They want to find favor with him.

It’s a striking allegory — not quite to the degree of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic gallows as it were, but there’s something moving in this picture. Rich in content and meaning, but never in a way that makes one feel put upon or totally scandalized. We watch their visitor become the subject of ensuing pilgrimages of all the local children.

As we’re privy to both worlds, we know this man is actually wanted by the authorities. He’s no Christ; he’s not even a saint, and we must watch and wait for their expectations to be utterly crushed. Because there will always be persecution and unbelief in some form acting in constant opposition. Although they conveniently keep their secret from the grown-ups, it cannot last forever.

A local bully tries to intimidate them all back into the status quo. One small boy on the playground all but recants a visitation with “Jesus,” which in his mind is tantamount to Peter’s denial. There’s personified devastation on his youthful face as he gets a reprieve from earthly torment, but at what cost? It sounds almost silly to speak of these things in such weighty terms, but I’m only treating them with the same gravity as these little children.

If this is the case, we must always return to our protagonist. Hayley Mills shows off all her most extraordinary traits as a young performer, buoyant and yet defiant and determined in the face of naysayers. There’s an assurance she holds onto that guides much of the movie, and it must lead to the inevitable.

The final juxtaposition of Charlie’s boisterous birthday party full of hearty squeals and blind man’s bluff plays against the more ascetic sense of the outdoors as the wanted man tries to escape the local dragnet. He gets cornered in the barn with the police flying to the scene and the whole town hot on their heels. It looks like the children’s faith is bound to be dashed right before their eyes.

What a difference a point of view makes and the intention behind it. Instead of churning up the local rumor mill with clamoring gawkers and gossipers, it feels more like one final act of belief with all the masses set to pay their respects and catch a glimpse of the man. Certainly, the masses are mostly children and that says something in itself.

Because you can take its parable in two ways: either it’s a pragmatic lesson that children must learn how the real world works — with sin, moral ambiguity, and heartbreak. Still, maybe it’s actually a reflection of the Christ’s sacrifice, coming into the world for the humble and the downtrodden, those who would willingly put their trust in him. If we consider these children, their trust is such that they believe he will come back again someday. It’s similarly arresting.

The extraordinary nature of the ending comes with the revelation that this sense of reverence is never broken, keeping with the film’s guiding light from start to finish. This is far from the norm, and it’s rather refreshing that hope is never completely quelled. It’s up to the viewer to decide what to do with this.

4/5 Stars