For a movie that starts with a murder fueled by rage and ends with a dangerous decision to be made in rough seas, Tiger Bay is one of the most touching and endearing studies of childhood and friendship you could hope to see. Please note that elements of the plot are discussed.
When a young Polish seaman named Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz) returns to his home port in Wales after a long spell at sea, he is the happiest man alive. He has some money in his pocket and a good-looking girlfriend. He can hardly wait to arrive at her apartment flat, which he has been paying the rent on. But he meets someone else living there. When he finally locates his girl, he finds she's been seeing someone else, a man she thinks has "class." It's the old story. She begins screaming at him. He loses his temper and screams back. She pulls a gun from a dresser drawer and orders him out of her apartment and out of her life. In a mater of seconds he's wrestled the gun away from her and she's lying dead on the floor of multiple bullet wounds. And while this has been going on, ten-year-old Gillie (Hayley Mills) has been crouched down and staring at what she could see through the mail slot in the door. Gillie is bright and quick. She lives with her aunt down the hall. She's good at making up stories, not lies, exactly, but close enough. Her friends won't play cops and robbers with her because she doesn't have a toy gun. She loves to imagine adventures. Korchinsky hears the police arriving. He hides the gun and then hides himself. As soon as he disappears, Gillie nips in and takes the gun from where she saw Korchinsky hide it. But now Korchinsky spots her.
For the rest of the movie we follow Gillie as she avoids Korchinsky, as she shows off the gun to a friend during choir, and as Detective Superintendent Graham (John Mills) questions Gillie and the neighbors to try to make sense of the murder. It doesn't take long for Korchinsky to abduct Gillie with a tale of escaping on an adventure to another country. He knows she is the only one who can identify him. Gillie, her head full of excitement, is no dummy, but she longs for what she imagines. Korchinsky, in fact, turns out to be a young man over his head, almost as young in some ways as Gillie. He begins to see Gillie as the same kind of uncomplicated dreamer in some ways he is. While he convinces Gillie not to give him away, he leaves her for a few hours so he can sign on to a ship soon to sail for Caracas. When Gillie is found alone and waiting for Korchinsky to return, Superintendent Graham must try to convince Gillie that Korchinsky is dangerous and that she must corporate to capture him. Gillie, despite the best efforts of Graham, will not betray her friend. The cat and mouse struggle between Graham and Gillie is one of the most amusing situations in the movie.
The climax is on the freighter bound for Caracas just outside the three mile zone off the coast of Wales. The inspector has arrived on a pilot boat with Gillie to identify Korchinsky. He is determined to bring Korchinsky in. Just when it looks like Korchinsky will be safe, Gillie falls overboard in the high seas. The only one who sees her fall is Korchinsky. If he lets her die unseen, he will remain on the ship and be safe as it heads away from Britain. If he dives in to try to save Gillie, he will be picked up by the pilot boat, even if he saves her, and returned to Wales, sooner or later to be tried for murder. It's his choice and he has only seconds to decide.
This was Hayley Mills first movie. She was 13 and she is extraordinary. Buchholz and Mills (her father) do fine jobs, but the movie fails or succeeds on whether or not the person of Gillie captures us. We not only have to identify with Gillie, we have to believe in her. Mills makes Gillie a person we root for, a person we understand why she won't turn in her friend even after she realizes he won't be taking her anywhere. Mills does all this with straightforward and unaffected charm, and without a speck of sentimentality.
But nothing is perfect in this world, and Tiger Bay is cursed with one of the most awful screen scores I've ever heard. It's not only loud, it's cloyingly sentimental with tons of lush strings. Worse, it punctuates every tense scene with cliche-ridden horn stings and drum beats. The score does a disservice to the movie. The DVD transfer is first rate. The movie is in black and white, and the docks and Gillie's gritty working class neighborhood look just as tough as they probably were. With the exception of the score, the movie is the work of skilled craftsmen who knew how tell a story. Be sure to get the ITV DVD release which features a commentary by Hayley Mills.