Director: Basil Dearden
By Roderick Heath
Basil Dearden remains an underappreciated figure of British cinema, although he made some of the most fondly-remembered hits it saw from the mid-1940s to the 1960s. Perhaps he’s neglected precisely because of that, as he was one of those establishment figures loathed by the young guns of the various new wave movements, in spite of the fact Dearden helped define a peculiarly British model of realist cinema subsequent generations would assimilate. Dearden started as a screenwriter and made his directing debut on The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), and contributed some segments to the famous omnibus film Dead of Night (1945), the first British horror movie produced after a total ban on such movies for World War II’s duration was relaxed. Dearden had presaged it with the eerie but gently humane fantasy The Halfway House (1944), where the dead linger in a haunted house for the purpose of coaching the living through the terrors of the war, something of a mission statement for Dearden’s later career as he continued nudging the national consciousness towards the next problem on the frontier of attitude.
Dearden was a weathered professional who would dabble in many genres, from historical melodramas like Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), to comedies like The Smallest Show on Earth (1957) and Man in the Moon (1960), and later in his career he would take a whack at a David Lean-like epic with the stodgy but interesting Khartoum (1966), before returning to supernatural fare for his last film before dying in a car crash in 1971, The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). Dearden was at first associated with Ealing Studios, but he left them after being obliged to make too many anodyne comedies, the studio’s commercial stock-in-trade. Dearden scored a big domestic hit for Ealing with The Blue Lamp (1950), a police drama starring Jack Warner as PC George Dixon: although the character was killed in the film, he was so popular he was revived for a long-running TV series. Dearden’s proven knack would see him often return to dramas about criminals and ordinary people caught between them and the law, but he also began cultivating a habit of utilising a nominal genre setting to take a long, hard look at some interesting corner of modern British life.
In this regard Dearden was following a brief moment of social conscience cinema seen in Hollywood after the war from the likes of Elia Kazan, Robert Rossen, and Nicholas Ray, and his own labours would run concurrent with Stanley Kramer’s. But Dearden for the most part avoided Kramer’s rhetorical dramatic modes, preferring instead to tie his commentary to strong genre plots, in a manner that feels crucially anticipatory of a vast swathe of contemporary film and television, particularly in crime dramas made in Britain and Scandinavia. Dearden’s visual approach to these films appropriated the chiaroscuro black-and-white of film noir and combined it with location shooting techniques, weaving in the influence of neorealism. Dearden’s work in this vein encompassed racism in Pool of London, Sapphire (1959), and All Night Long (1961), homosexuality in Victim (1961), the lingering undercurrents of resentment and violence inherent in Britain’s relations with Ireland on The Gentle Gunman (1952), delinquency and urban crime with Violent Playground (1957), the lot of former veterans left bereft and aimless after the war in The Ship That Died of Shame (1955) and The League of Gentlemen (1959), and questions of medical responsibility clashing with religious scruples in Life for Ruth (1962).
Dearden’s best works are epic in a compressed fashion, trying to encompass a survey of a whole social moment as they unfold. The League of Gentlemen offers a cross-section of former veterans ranging from bottom feeders to bored upper-class layabouts who decide to rob a bank. All Night Long contemplated race and gender relations through the prism of Britain’s jazz hipster scene. Victim contemplates the tenuous existence and vulnerability of gay men via a potent lead performance by Dirk Bogarde, whose taking the role amounted to a tacit coming out before the entire filmgoing public. Dearden sometimes let slip a blackly comic sense of humour in the likes of The League of Gentlemen and The Assassination Bureau (1969), and the reworking of Othello in All Night Long spoke of an ingenuity and openness to playing around with familiar storytelling modes he didn’t get to work out much in his more earnest and mainstream-minded projects.
Pool of London is possibly Dearden’s best film, mating a sturdy crime tale to a study in slowly shifting social mores in the London of 1951, seen through the eyes of two outsiders, sailors Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), a black Jamaican, and Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano), a Canadian. They’re both hands on a cargo ship, the Dunbar, which docks in the Pool of London, then a hub of London’s maritime trade but long since redeveloped into a zone of upscale apartments, directly adjacent to Tower Bridge and across the river from the Tower of London. The sailors often try to make a little extra cash by sneaking in foreign goods to sell or win hearts, trying to outfox the exacting Customs Officer Andrews (Michael Golden): one fellow crewman gets busted with a bunch of watches after declaring himself innocent a little too forcibly, whilst Dan gets caught later trying to sneak out some nylon stockings, gifts intended for his girl in the city, Maisie (Moira Lister).
Another sailor, Harry (Leslie Phillips), has a steady girl in the shipping company’s secretary pool, Sally (Renée Asherson), but he’s growing bored with her, whilst she remains steadfastly loyal, always awaiting his returns. The engine room officer, Trotter (James Robertson Justice), prefers to ignore the city altogether, calling it a den of depravity, bunking down in his cabin instead with a few bottles of scotch and a volume of English poetry to await the time to sail again. Dan’s reputation as a guy on the make sees an acquaintance recommend him to Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian), a music hall acrobat who’s cooking up a heist: Vernon has made an alliance with some gangsters to rob an importer’s stash of diamonds, and Dan will sneak the haul out of the country on the Dunbar for a £100 fee. Johnny follows Dan to the music hall where he meets Vernon, whilst Johnny loiters in the foyer, chatting with the ticket seller, Pat (Susan Shaw). Johnny is racially abused by a theatre commissionaire for peeking in on the show and chased out, earning the wrath of Pat and Dan. They meet again cueing for a bus shortly after, and they start hanging out together over the next few days, glimmerings of romantic interest apparent in both.
Pool of London is as much romance, character study, and social realist document as it is a thriller, with jots of comedy and satire in the mix. You could call it a down-to-earth remake of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s On The Town (1948), taking up the same basic idea but utilising it as the basis for anatomising a place and culture at a certain moment rather than idealising it. The film betrays a certain commonality of spirit with the works of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Sidney Gilliat, filmmakers who resisted making movies in the post-war period that belong neatly to any generic classification. Fellow Ealing hero Robert Hamer would make a breakneck swerve from the tart black comedy of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to The Long Memory (1952), a film that plays a downriver counterpart to Dearden’s in its obsession with harsh dramas of life and death played out amongst the rubble and ash-heaps and cast-off wares a waning imperial-industrial age.
Dearden devotes early scenes to describing the diverse crewmen of the Dunbar with all their different habits for coping with their lot as perpetual wanderers. He details the nuisance of the period’s onerous enforcement of import rules and the lack of consumer goods in those still-straitened post-war years, as well as the characters’ efforts to subvert it on both a petty and felonious level. Economic pressure is a general reality. Vernon has developed his heist plan as he’s fed up with performing for a pittance, and he’s hardly alone in looking for some kind of edge or angle to beef up his earnings. Dan foils his own seemingly easy job in the plot in his need to show off to Maisie, who’s furious with him for failing to bring his promised bounty of nylons.
The photography, by the brilliant but little-celebrated Gordon Dines, sketches Dearden’s evocation of time and place in hues of hard blacks and whites and smoky greys, turning the brick and ironwork of the city’s famous landmarks into a landscape replete with vertiginous highs and lows and boles of inky blackness. His palette is perfect for recording Dearden’s attempt to anatomise London, a city stranded between its industrial and commercial height and its renewal, still bearing the scars of war and littered with the ruins of the Blitz and the oncoming wane of an industrial and commercial age. The façades of the old and upright business and institutional buildings showing their implacable bars and brickwork to the street like an urban Stonehenge. The soaring geometric splendours of St Paul’s and the Greenwich Observatory, which Johnny visits with Pat in ticking off tourist sights, offer the grandeur of a great stage of civilisation that nonetheless enacts its true passions and appetites down on the dirty street. Those unfold in its smoky, gritty pubs and seamy music halls and dank tenements, the faint air of desperation collecting like dampness on the grubby walls or the film of perspiration seen daubing many a brow, from Vernon after a performance to Dan as he realises he’s plunged himself into a cruel trap. Only occasionally does something as transfixing, even transporting, as Pat’s face suddenly gleams out amongst the morass.
Industrial detritus, from barges ranked up on the Thames shore to old train carriages left to rust on the wayside downriver, speak of the teeming infrastructure needed to build, maintain, and supply such a metropolis. Yet Dearden’s London, sometimes a desolate wasteland, is occasionally decorated by islets of frenetic and eager human energy, from Salvation Army band providing a mostly free distraction for onlookers to a flock of bicyclists escaping the narrow streets for the channels to the countryside. “It always seemed before as a big, lonesome sort of a place,” Johnny tells Pat. Johnny’s solitary strolls back to the Dunbar punctuate the film, which unfolds over three days and nights. First he’s a lonely figure kicking a can down through Shad Thames, second a love-struck man skipping along the way, third an anxious and bitter refugee glad to escape a city that’s chewed him up and spat him out. After deciding to forget their perfidious other lovers by dancing away the night, Dan and Sally make their way through the streets only to start dancing there too. Vernon turns the rooftops into a playground where he tries to defy fate and gravity by using his acrobatic skills as part of his planned heist.
Part of Dearden’s attraction to hot topics and tabloid issues was partly fuelled not just by civic-mindedness but his genuine interest in characters with powerfully schismatic world views forced to confront each-other and mediate their understanding, or be destroyed by that refusal. This motif in his work reached an apex with the confrontations of two titanic zealots, Chinese Gordon and the Mahdi, in Khartoum. Here the meeting is the much gentler one of Johnny and Pat, two potential lovers separated by Johnny’s anxiety rather than Pat’s. It’s also embodied by Johnny and Dan, but their distinction is more that of their approach to life, Dan’s opportunism versus Johnny’s quiet resolve to give up sailing and return to Jamaica to get some education; the one gift of his otherness is that it imbues him with a sense of a future that can be won rather than a present to be merely occupied. Otherwise the steadfastness of their friendship is a given, to the point where Dan thinks nothing of endangering his pal by asking him to perform an illegal act and Johnny thinks nothing of performing it.
This idea of personal loyalty as a strange and rigorous faith was another consistent Dearden concern, particularly where it ran contrary to larger social assumptions: Victim and All Night Long in particular would repeat the motif of women bewildered by their partners’ wayward tastes and perversities, trying to swim against a too-strong current in dealing with aspects of monstrosity they uncover. Sally’s dedication to the unfaithful Harry is a minor aspect of Pool of London but Dearden notes, with a blend of romanticism and dubiety, the process of her shifting loyalty to Dan, who is himself doomed to be, at least for the foreseeable future, another absentee mate. The film’s very end encompasses an ugly moment when Dan deliberately offends and spurns Johnny in order to save him from his own heedless allegiance. Dearden’s jabs of humour extend to a sequence in which the coppers bust a usual suspect who’s just been announcing with noisy confidence as a Hyde Park speaker his close communications with great statesmen (his lectern reads, “Truth over Party”). The portrayal of the police isn’t far from The Blue Lamp’s straightforward enforcers of justice, but here they have a slightly alien, antiseptic quality, cheerless and competent except for the street beat bobby, like an occupying army making sure the proles don’t act up too much.
Adrian’s Vernon (the musical hall bill calls him “The Gentleman Acrobat”) is a fascinating marginal creation, a stage performer turned criminal mastermind, the sort of character you’d expect to see in a Lang or Hitchcock film, or, in his acrobatic prowess and rooftop daring, like a French silent serial character. Except that Dearden renders him as realistically as the other characters, first glimpsed all clammy from his performing, caked in make-up like a rough draft for Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret (1972) and wearing his evening tuxedo over a shirt with no sleeves, another sweat-reaping labourer who covers it in a veneer of showbiz class. Vernon is glimpsed in the music hall’s grimy dressing room where a sign on the wall reads, “Silence is Always Golden – Speech is Counterfeit Sometimes.” He’s talked forcibly retired clerk George (George Benson) into coughing up all the details for the heist in exchange for a cut, but Vernon is in turn obliged to surrender more of the potential take to his professional criminal acquaintances because he needs their particular skills.
Vernon’s robbery plan most crucially demands his special talent however – a leap across a great height so he can penetrate an office building in the daylight, a move of perfect daring that evokes the existential state of the entire scene Dearden surveys. But he undoes his own daring by getting sloppy and violent with the building’s elderly caretaker (Beckett Bould), knocking him out but failing to restrain him, so that when the man wakes up, he grabs at Vernon, who throws him off, accidentally killing him as he slams his head against a step. Dearden’s very British sensibility manifested in his approach to how his criminals and villains get caught out, by small changes to routines or idle habits, like the nerdy schoolboy whose fondness for recording licence plates in The League of Gentlemen. Here, the heist is turned from a smooth operation to a deadly adventure by a policeman noticing a bottle of milk that hasn’t been taken in like usual, and then by a sisterly quarrel. Dan’s boasting to Maisie over his turn of good luck, and then realisation that he’s quite literally holding the bag, is overheard by Maisie’s sister Pamela (Joan Dowling), who lives adjacent to her and breaks off from smooching her boyfriend to listen in; presuming she now has a device to hold over her sister, Pamela makes a show of dressing up in one of Maisie’s dresses. But Maisie wallops her instead, starting a vicious sisterly brawl that attracts a bobby, who overhears Pamela bellowing out crucial information.
Cameron will turn 101 this year if he makes it to August; he joins Leslie Phillips in this cast as an actor of startling longevity. Born in Pembroke, Jamaica, Cameron had almost died from pneumonia during the war, and found years later it had left one of his lungs useless without anyone noticing. He was making his film debut with Pool of London, although he would be a familiar face in British films for decades to come, appearing in Thunderball (1965) and alongside a pubescent David Hemmings in the tinny but likeable manhunt drama Flame In The Streets (1962), and much more recently in movies like The Interpreter (2005), The Queen (2006), and Inception (2010). He’s sometimes described now as Britain’s first black film star, which is a half-truth, as he never really had another leading role as good as Johnny Lambert, a part that was all but autobiographical for the actor, as he had also been a merchant seaman. Pool of London is also sometimes described as the first to portray a mixed-race relationship, although that’s also a half-truth, as Johnny and Pat’s obvious mutual attraction doesn’t go anywhere for a variety of reasons.
Cameron’s newness to movies it a surprise considering how well he holds the screen and projects a mature air of melancholic confusion under the façade of Johnny’s good-natured stoicism, a façade that finally cracks under the pressure of liquor, disappointment, and treachery. His Johnny isn’t merely a straw man set up to make a few anti-racist points, but a figure who suffers from the same mix of alienation and anxious yearning as the people who surround him, only intensified by his obvious difference. Johnny’s disinclination to properly romance Pat is as much informed by the same problem as faces Dan and his other pals, his come-and-go life violently contrasting her status as a popular lady about town, and his own crisis is sparked when he tries to meet up with her after the Dunbar’s leaving is delayed, only to see her being swept up by a gang of friends whose breezy urban lives he knows he can’t negotiate. His and Shaw’s crucial moment comes when they converse outsider the Greenwich Observatory, on the Meridian, that crucial arbiter for invisible but consequential divides, an intellectual construct Pat and Johnny both admit to not understanding.
Johnny gives a dreamy monologue about the notions that flick through his mind when at the wheel of the ship, questions about why it seems to matter, amongst other things, if a man is black or white. “It doesn’t matter,” Pat tells him with plain intent, to which Johnny replies with cool, factual assurance, to Pat’s stricken look: “It does matter what people think. Perhaps someday it won’t, but it does now.” Cameron might not have had more parts as good, but he was luckier in life than his costars Colleano and Shaw, who were married three years after appearing together in this film. New York-born Colleano, New York born out of a family of accomplished circus acrobats, had gained himself a niche in British film. He usually played token Americans or Canadians in war movies but becoming a well-known face with his trademark knobby features and honk of a voice, but he was killed in a car crash aged 34 in 1958, and Shaw’s resultant, profound depression gave way to alcoholism, a malady that killed her in 1978. Colleano was expert at playing slightly charming chancers like Dan: his best moment here is off-hand, giving a cool bob of his brows as he call his donation to Salvation Army girl, “The wages of sin,” to her sly retort, “Been working overtime?”
The divergent storylines of Dan and Johnny only properly unify at the very end, and take place before that essentially in different movie genres. Dan’s tribulations are those of a straight-up crime film, whilst Johnny heads off into a romance that shades into a calmer but no less cruel drama of character and context: the forces that bear down upon Dan are legal and monetary, where Johnny keeps a clean nose but is worked upon by identity like a vice. Dan’s own romance with Sally is just as profound as Johnny’s and just as impossible. Dan finds himself cast as fugitive and singular villain by the police, and scooped up by his nominal cronies who plan to eliminate him rather than risk having him blab to the police. Dan is lucky as some policemen stationed to nab him near the Dunbar catch sight of his abduction, and give chase to the hoodlums’ car. Dan makes a break from his tormentors, but catches a bullet and plunges into the Thames: he manages to swim aboard a sailing boat heading down river. Meanwhile Vernon and the others are cornered and, in a sequence that again betrays a Hitchcockian influence, Vernon tries to flee the cops by ascending a tall structure and shimmying across a long pipe to freedom, but he fails to gain a proper grip and plunges to his death.
Dearden’s use of his locations is great throughout but especially here, in the dashes for survival through the cavernous spaces of urban edifices, dwarfing and corralling the humans scurrying up and down them, the blank institutional tiles and whitewash of the buildings that allow no purchase or hiding spot and the black waters of the river that swallow up Dan. Meanwhile Johnny gets hammered in a bar, trying to wash Pat out of his system, and he finds himself taken in hand by a self-appointed drinking buddy who encourages him to get so drunk he doesn’t notice when his pocket is picked: the thief ignores the can brilliantine the robber loot is hidden in. Johnny, blind with drink and anger, causes a scene and is hurled out bodily: “They’re all the same,” the barman mutters as they retreat within, leaving Johnny a sodden mess on the pavement, having conspired in his own Calvary. Dearden gives away his neorealist inspirations as he works in a Paisan (1946), as Johnny wakes up in the bombed-out ruins of a church, broke, demeaned, and lovelorn, but still intact and hardy, unaware the police think he was in cahoots with Dan.
Dan meanwhile seems home free as he’s borne off towards the ocean, but as he lingers in pain and guilt unnoticed by the sailing boat’s crew, in a sequence that betrays a lingering influence of the ‘30s poetic realists on Dearden as shadows play over Colleano’s face in rhythm with the water lapping over the boat’s gunwales, he elects to slide overboard, swim to shore, and try to make it back to the Dunbar and warn Johnny. Dearden extracts maximum, agonising tension out of Dan’s shambling, wounded efforts to catch up with his pal, and must compound the pain by destroying Johnny’s reflexive loyalty by brushing him off. But Johnny still realises what his friend has done for him as he sees him on the dock from the sailing ship, surrendering to the police. Perhaps an over-neat ending to a drama that accurately diagnoses the fatalism of working class lives that expects everything to go wrong sooner or later, as well as their determination to keep chasing joy by any means. The film’s real subject is the threads that connect ordinary people, the process of learning and growing as a society a drama that’s enacted on the streets and not in neat abstractions, using its generic modes to communicate the diversity of experience that can subsist cheek by jowl, and life is never just one story.