It’s a typical Friday afternoon. Two young sailors arrive upstream into the murky Pool of London, their hearts aflutter with plans for petty illegal trade. Swirling around the open seas has given these opportunist cabin boys time to contemplate their wayward place in the world. With only a couple of days of shore leave, Johnny (Earl Cameron) and Dan (Bonar Colleano) look to make the most of their time in the jewel of London.
Whilst wandering around the metropolitan, post-World War 2 London, black sailor Johnny searches for a new place to call home. Half way across the world from his native homeland, Johnny feels alone and estranged in the big city, eager to return to his ship he searches for something to grasp onto. After being removed from a theatre for loitering in the corridor, Johnny has a chance meeting with the cute ticket girl, Pat (Susan Shaw), who is sympathetic to the racial abuse thrown at him. With her words of comfort their relationship quickly blossoms, affording Johnny some meaning to hang around the city.
Meanwhile Johnny’s brash American partner Dan is in the city to make a quick quid. After selling tobacco to a local gang, he is soon brought into the fold on a jewellery heist that is being orchestrated by a failing acrobat Charlie (Max Adrian). Dan agrees to smuggle the stolen goods out of the city for a small fortune without two thoughts about it. However, the heist doesn’t quite go to plan. Confiding in his sweetheart, Maisie (Moira Lister), she urges him to keep the diamonds so they can live a better life. This plan soon falls into dire shape as Maisie’s obnoxious sister overhears the plot and sets the wheels in motion for what the narrative is truly about.
At its heart Pool of London is about the divide within London society in a post-war city; the divide between men and women, between the black community and the white, between the old generation and the new. Dearden’s noir-ish intentions feel little more than a delivery mechanism for what he truly wanted to explore, which is to say – a city in transition. Johnny feels unwanted by the older, established people of the city, whereas the younger and more liberal citizens are more welcoming of him. The ending teases expectations for where one might expect the heist narrative to go with Johnny as the patsy but undermines audience expectations. It isn’t a perfect ending for our characters but it feels as if Dearden was optimistic for the future of the city.
The tone of the film flip-flops between the noir genre that was popular in the 1950’s, and the kitchen sink drama of Dan’s relationship, which is echoed in the scenes of the other sailors from the ship and their sweethearts. Personally I was more captivated by the elegant portrayal of the youth culture then the crime-caper elements of the plot. At times the two tones feel to contradict one another. We follow the earnest beginnings of a beautiful relationship between Johnny and Pat but that is juxtaposed with the manic acrobat robber who scales bombed buildings, leaping between them. Dearden was clearly interested in pointing the finger at society’s prejudice towards black men, and overall he highlights this very well whilst also giving hope to the future generations.
With slick black and white photography and a crisp presentation – this restoration of Pool of London is a fantastic way to catch a glimpse of London that’s largely been lost, apart from the Hitchcockian powerhouse cinema of its day – it shows a tender side to the city. One born of acceptance of a mixed culture of people. The film feels particularly relevant with the BFI’s Black Star season as well. Proudly boasting its credentials as the first British film to depict an interracial relationship in the post-Windrush years, Pool of London feels like an important step in cinema to the world we know today.
Pool of London is out on Blu-Ray and DVD now.