Ranking: #95/111

Director: Basil Dearden (Britain)

Genre: Film Noir Crime Drama

American film critic and theoretician, James Monaco, categorises this film accurately as follows: “Part detective story, part gangster, part urban melodrama, Film Noir was identified most easily by its dark and pessimistic undercurrents.” (Monaco, J, How to Read a Film – Movies, Media and Beyond, p.338) 

Produced by Ealing Studios, Pool of London is a powerful classic Film Noir crime drama, with a rich layer of memorable “slices of life” of post-war London subtly added to the narrative, all shot in beautiful black and white. The lively, on-location camera work is supported by well-placed realistic sounds of the city of London and of typical working-class activities in, and around, the pool of London, a stretch of the River Thames on the south side of the City of London.  The area was characterised by wharves and crowded warehouses and was a hub for inspecting imported cargoes in order to tackle smuggling. This fact provides the background for the narrative which begins with the arrival of the merchant ship Dunbar into the pool of London, followed by various attempts by some of the crew to take illegal goods on shore without being caught by Customs officers.

An incisive script, with realistic, believable dialogue, seems to match these downbeat urban settings, generating a strong sense of immediacy. The dialogue veers from the witty and charming to the gritty and poignant. The attention to detail is always superb, for example, the new craze among women of that time for wearing nylon stockings.

The narrative is framed by a good time unity, with the ship docking on Friday and due to depart on the Sunday (“tides don’t change their mind”). Somehow, an atmosphere of impending tragedy rapidly evolves through the plot, with crisp editing complementing the nimble camera work. This is reinforced by short scenes generating a quick pace.

The main character is Dan Macdonald, a charismatic sailor with a goodness of character mixed in with some daring and impulsiveness, a trait which leads to his downfall. The character is portrayed with total immersion and nuanced expressiveness by Bonar Colleano, an American stage actor. Dan gets involved in a plot by two poor brothers, both desperate for money, to smuggle £20,000 worth of diamonds onto the ship. The plot then takes twists and turns as the brothers arrange the heist, using Vernon the acrobat, one of the brothers, as the “cat burglar” who actually steals the diamonds.  Colleano gives a magnificent account of himself in this pivotal role.

At this point, the sub-theme, which is a treatment of nascent racism in Britain, converges with the main plot. Dan has a black Jamaican friend and fellow crewman called Johnny, with whom he spends some time on shore during this fateful weekend. Earl Cameron portrays his character with a wide range of emotions, always subtly expressed, as he tries to navigate his way through a “white” world which can be friendly, or hostile, towards him. Cameron was a Bermudian actor who initially appeared on stage in the West End before giving this breakthrough performance (after which he became Britain’s first black movie star). While on shore he meets a genuine and warm-hearted white woman, Pat, and the director, Basil Dearden, puts together a beautiful montage of the couple looking at the sights of London, showing the National Maritime Museum and the Greenwich Observatory, as well as the wealthy part of the city, which is in sharp contrast to the city’s colourful underworld of shady characters and dubious undertakings. The views in this visual cinematic collage are stunning and form part of the textured social portrait of London with its class differences and its iconic architecture. It is thought that the Pool of London was the first British film to feature such interracial relationships. While the film vividly recreates the spirit of the place and time, it remains many years ahead of its time in its bold depiction of the incipient race problem brewing in the country. There are some disturbing scenes of aggression against the black man and the ending is heart-breaking but, ultimately, inspiring, setting the tone for an alternative approach to a situation where “race matters”, expressing the hope that “maybe one day it won’t”.

This is an incredibly vibrant film, bristling with narrative tension and thematic significance, a masterful Film Noir crime drama which is a joy to watch.