Early British films: Tiger Bay (1959) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

Tiger Bay

Released in 1959, Hayley Mills’s first film still seems remarkably fresh and contemporary. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who went on to direct several notable (and less notable) Hollywood action movies, Tiger Bay co-starred the German actor Horst Buchholz in his first English-language film, along with Hayley’s father John Mills. As I have noted, it was Thompson’s meeting with Hayley that prompted him to change the central character from a boy (in the original short story, ‘Rodolphe et le Revolver’ by Noel Calef) to a girl: apparently, he was impressed by what he saw as her natural talent and her ‘wonderful big eyes’ – eyes which play a crucial role in the film.

Briefly, the story concerns a young girl named Gillie Evans, who witnesses a murder. Looking through the letterbox of a flat in her apartment block, she sees a Polish sailor (Bronislaw Kochinsky) shoot his lover in a fit of jealousy. Kochinsky hides the gun, but Gillie retrieves it. Kochinsky then tracks her down to the church where she has been singing in the choir. At first, she threatens him with the gun, but they go on to form a friendship. The police are on Kochinsky’s trail, but the two manage to escape capture. Gillie is apprehended, but she denies all knowledge of Kochinsky, and helps to implicate another man. However, in the final scenes, the police catch up with Kochinsky, who has already absconded on a ship bound for Caracas. Gilly falls off the ship, and Kochinsky rescues her, but the police pull him from the water and arrest him.

Tiger Bay is essentially a fast-paced suspense thriller: several scenes are very tightly choreographed and edited, and the chase sequences build to an effective climax. However, there are also elements of social realism, especially in the matter-of-fact portrayal of the shabby, multi-cultural Cardiff neighbourhood in which the film is set. Despite the casting of John Mills in the role of the police superintendent, it is striking how the point of identification throughout remains with the child, and her association with the wrong-doer, rather than with the authorities. The murder is a crime of passion: as Steve Chibnall argues, ‘criminality stems from weakness and the inability to deal with the emotions created by interpersonal relationships’ – a repeated theme in Thompson’s other early films. Kochinsky fails to heed the warning given to him by an Indian doctor early in the film: ‘don’t let your emotions rule your life’. For much of the film, he is panicking, out of his depth, and this is why he has to rely on the child to help him.

Mills’s performance is a very long way from the cute ‘moppets’ played by the likes of Shirley Temple. Her acting is quite naturalistic, with occasional fleeting facial tics and ungainly expressions that became a kind of trademark of her style. Her character is feisty, sometimes insolent, and very defiant towards authority. As in many films featuring child stars, she is without parents: she has moved to Cardiff from London, and is living with her aunt, who struggles to control her. From the very start, she is depicted as a liar: she deceives her aunt of the change from her shopping in order to buy a toy, and she immediately lies to the police about what she has witnessed. Later, she falsely identifies the murderer in an identity parade, and continues to insist until the very end – despite great pressure from the police – that she knows nothing of Kochinsky. However, this is not inveterate lying: it is motivated in the first place by her desire to keep the gun, and then by her loyalty to Kochinsky. Both Gillie and Kochinsky are outsiders: Kochinsky dreams of marriage, but he is constantly drawn by his love of the sea; while Gillie is parentless, a Londoner in an alien city and country, who struggles to find a way in to the street games of her peers. Both are looking for belonging, and yet also for escape.

One recurring issue in the films I’ll be discussing is to do with children’s agency – that is, their ability to drive and influence events. A key aspect of this is to do with knowledge. This is partly a matter of how the film manipulates the viewer’s access to information, and that of the various characters, through narrative; but in this case it is also to do with the different kinds and levels of knowledge possessed by the children and the adults. In the early part of the film, Gillie has most of the knowledge, and the viewer shares it with her: she knows where the gun is, and conceals it; she knows that the gun is not loaded, although Kochinsky does not know this when she aims it at him; and of course she constantly conceals key facts about the murder from the police. At the same time, the viewer knows that Kochinsky is unlikely to take her with him, despite her wishes; and we see several threats to her safety that she does not see herself (notably in a scene where a gate swings open on a ferry, and Kochinsky eventually rescues her).

Tiger Bay also comments more directly on assumptions about childhood, most notably in the scene where Gillie takes the gun with her to church and conceals it under her surplice. She then proceeds to sing in a very pure and ‘angelic’ way; yet she also swaps a bullet from the gun for some chocolate with one of the choir boys, and they clinch the deal while singing in time to the psalm. As in her interrogations at the hands of the police, it seems that Gillie is very skilful in turning on the persona of the innocent, wide-eyed child when the context suits her.

Another key issue here is that of gender. Thompson’s use of a girl rather than a boy in the leading role may have been somewhat fortuitous, but it opens up some interesting questions. Gillie is a tomboy, with a short pudding-basin haircut, dressed in trousers and a dark t-shirt throughout. When we first see her, she is framed behind railings, looking on at a group of (mainly) boys playing a cowboys-and-indians or gangster game in the street. The boys refuse to allow her to take part on the grounds that she doesn’t have a toy gun, and tell her to go back to London. When Gillie fights back, the boys tell her that this is not a game for ‘ladies’, and she retorts ‘I’m not a lady’. Gillie’s desire for a gun, and her eventual acquisition of a real gun, is her initial motivation. Some critics have read this in tiresomely Freudian terms: Gillie is apparently suffering from penis envy, and the gun is (needless to say) a phallic symbol. The film’s title, meanwhile, is apparently a reference to vagina dentata, at least according to the critic Melanie Williams…

Freudian symbol-hunting aside, Williams is correct to suggest that Tiger Bay offers a vision of girlhood, not only on the cusp of adolescence, but also on the cusp of the social revolutions of the 1960s. In one scene, Kochinsky invites Gillie to look forward to the romantic relationships that will lie ahead for her as a woman – although from his rather embittered perspective, this is a matter of her having ‘all the power in the world, for good or bad, just with your little finger, a few words, to make [men] happy or unhappy’. If Kochinsky’s lover Anya clearly represents this femme fatale version of female power, the other women in the film (such as Gillie’s aunt) are less than powerful; yet, as Williams argues, Gillie’s own role anticipates the more liberated young women of 1960s cinema.

Of course, it’s possible to see the relationship between Gillie and Kochinsky as a kind of romance. (Mills later reported that she fell ‘instantly in love’ with the handsome Buchholz.) In one scene, they are onlookers at a West Indian wedding celebration, and the two of them are scattered with confetti; and the closing shots, in which they embrace after he has rescued her from the sea, are accompanied by a rather insistent swell of romantic strings. However, it is Kochinsky’s desire to protect Gillie that pulls us to his side – for example, in the scene on the ferry, and of course when he rescues her from the sea, rather than choosing to stay on the ship and save himself (even the police superintendent is bound to admit that he has shown himself to be ‘a brave man’). When the two of them briefly escape to the countryside before Kochinsky can catch his ship, we see him acting out playful stories for her, more like a young father than a lover. In this scene, as in the wedding scene and elsewhere, there are constant reminders of Kochinsky’s passionate love for the woman he has killed. By contrast, the bond between him and Gilly is one of loyalty and friendship between outsiders: it is affectionate, but there is no implication of sexual attraction (although Graham Greene might have disagreed…).


Whistle Down the Wind

This bond that is formed between the child and the criminal is one that recurs, in a rather different way, in the second film I’ll discuss, Whistle Down the Wind. Released in 1961, it was produced by Allied Film Makers, a small independent company that made a total of six films (including, most famously, the gay drama Victim) between 1959 and 1964. Two members of the company were mainly involved: Richard Attenborough as producer, and Bryan Forbes in his debut as a director. The script, based on a novel by Hayley Mills’s mother Mary Hayley Bell, was written by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who went on to become leading television writers.

The film focuses on three children living on a Lancashire farm who discover a fugitive hiding in their barn. When they stumble upon him, he exclaims ‘Jesus Christ!’ in shock. Heavily influenced by stories they have heard told at Sunday School, and by the Salvation Army, the children believe that he is Jesus come again. We learn fairly soon that the fugitive is wanted for murder, although the children remain unaware of this. Initially confused by their willingness to protect him from discovery, he makes no attempt to correct their mistake. Most of the children in the nearby village eventually learn that ‘Jesus’ is living in the barn, but it is only when the news finally reaches an adult, the children’s father, that police are called in to apprehend him. The criminal surrenders and is taken away, watched by a large audience of local children.

Here again, the issue of children’s agency and knowledge is a key theme. Mills’s character, Kathy, is the oldest of the children, and for much of the film she has knowledge that she deliberately conceals from the adults (and some of the other children). And yet, on another level, she suffers from a kind of blind faith, or ignorance: the adult viewer obviously knows that the fugitive, Blakey (played by Alan Bates), is not Jesus, whereas Kathy herself does not realize this until the very end. Initially, Blakey does not understand why the children are protecting him, and only gradually realizes. Meanwhile, the viewer sees information (for example on newspaper billboards) about the hunt for Blakey that the children do not see. These differences in knowledge – between the child characters, their parents, Blakey, and the viewer – are manipulated throughout, for various reasons: in order to create tension, to encourage or undermine the viewer’s identification, and at times for comic or ironic effect. It isn’t without significance that the game the children play at a birthday party towards the end of the film is one of Blind Man’s Buff.

It is only in the final scenes that these disparities in knowledge are resolved. The adults (and the police) find Blakey, and Kathy appears to learn what the adults know. Nevertheless, the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Rather than explicit dialogue, a series of extended close-ups on Kathy seem to imply that she is finally registering the truth about the criminal’s identity. However, when a couple of much younger children approach her and ask to see Jesus, she replies that they have missed him this time; but she reassures them that he will be coming again another day. The significance of this is open to debate: it is possible to infer that Kathy continues in a state of blind faith, although it seems more likely that she has made the transition to adult knowledge, and simply wishes to protect the younger children from disillusionment – rather as though she might not want to tell them the truth about Santa Claus.

Indeed, it could be argued that the film as a whole takes a rather ambiguous stance on these questions of knowledge and faith. As Sandy Brewer has noted, the story of Jesus was central to British children’s primary-school education in the 1950s. At the start of the film, we see the Salvation Army proselytizing in the streets of the village, and we also see the children at their religious Sunday School – although in both cases, their questions about whether Jesus will come again receive answers that are unclear and unsatisfactory. The posters outside the church, and the comments of the local vicar, suggest that organized religion is in decline. Later, the children approach the vicar for some definitive judgment about the rebirth and return of Jesus, although he appears largely preoccupied with thefts of metal guttering and dustbin lids from his church. As they leave, the youngest child, Charles, says ‘he doesn’t know, does he?’ Indeed, it is Charles who acts as a kind of disbelieving truth-teller throughout the film: he seems to lose his faith when he finds that ‘Jesus’ hasn’t protected his pet kitten, and he later asserts, ‘it isn’t Jesus, it’s just a feller’.

Yet at the same time, the film is overflowing with religious symbolism – to an extent that some contemporary critics found contrived. ‘Jesus’ appears in a stable, and the children of the village come to bring him offerings (including a plastic ‘Arabian charm bracelet’ from a children’s magazine); while at the very end of the film he holds out his arms in a crucifixion pose as he surrenders to the police. The children (his disciples, as they are called in the credits at the end of the film) have to ‘sin’ (to steal and lie) in order to help him; and in one scene, an older bully forces a younger child to deny three times that he knows Jesus, while a train whistle blows (or a cock crows). A version of ‘We Three Kings’ plays on several occasions as we see the three children approaching or disappearing into the distance. All of this could be read as ironic, or at least playful; but in combination with the other elements I have discussed, it contributes to a wider sense that the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance (or blind faith) are perhaps not entirely clear-cut.

From the outset, the film portrays the children’s world as largely separate from that of adults. In the opening scene, the three children, unseen, follow a farm worker as he goes to drown some unwanted kittens. They promptly rescue them and hide them in the barn. Here, as in their later attempts to conceal Blakey, they effectively evade adult control and surveillance, often through outright lying and deceit – and despite adults’ repeated attempts to boss them about. As Kathy says, the return of ‘Jesus’ has to be kept hidden: ‘it’s got to be a secret society from the grown-ups’. To some extent, the children are free to come and go as they please, although Kathy (aged about twelve) is delegated to take charge of the younger ones. The film offers a vision of rural childhood, but it is by no means a pastoral idyll of the kind that appears in Mills’s Disney films: the landscape is rugged, the weather is unforgiving, and farming is clearly very hard work.

On the one hand, this view of the child’s world might be seen to reflect the ‘lost freedom’ of 1950s childhoods, although it also generates some concerns about the children’s safety – as when their father, having heard that Blakey is on the run, warns them about the danger of talking to strangers or the ‘funny people [who are] about these days’. Significantly, the children’s mother is missing, and (as in Tiger Bay) a rather reluctant aunt has taken her place; while their father is generally somewhat distant – ‘I don’t know what they’re up to half the time’, he admits. These absences might be seen to reflect concerns about the need for emotional attachment within the family that were strongly emphasised in theories of child development at the time (for example in the work of psychologists such as Bowlby and Winnicott). Kathy is, on one level, an active agent with a certain degree of power and authority; but she is also rather lost and confused.

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