I, along with some of my fellow StreamLine colleagues, have been modestly building a case for the reassessment of Basil Dearden’s career during the past year by spotlighting many of his films including Sapphire (1959), The League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961), All Night Long (1963), Frieda(1947), The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) and The Captive Heart (1946). Despite the fact that the British director has been the subject of a Criterion DVD box set, Dearden is still relatively unknown in America outside of academic circles where he is typically regarded as a message filmmaker or competent craftsman. I think his body of work merits more consideration so I decided to dive into another Dearden film recently and came away even more impressed by his ability to combine challenging social commentary with dynamic filmmaking.
In Pool of London (1951), Dearden explores the shadowy environs of the London docklands where sailors from around the world mix, mingle and struggle to make a decent living. We get to know two of these sailors intimately; an American merchant seaman named Dan (Bonar Colleano) and his Jamaican pal Johnny (Earl Cameron). This noir-infused drama unfolds during a shore leave excursion where the mischievous Dan gets entangled with some unsavory smugglers and sensitive Johnny becomes smitten with a sweet-natured blond (Susan Shaw). Dan’s dilemma becomes increasingly difficult as the film spirals towards its nail-biting conclusion but Johnny’s interracial romance comes with its own set of problems.
Unlike America where mixed marriage was a crime in many states in 1951 (a fact that was not corrected until 1967 when the Supreme Court handed down its decision regarding Loving v. Virginia, the story of which is the focus of Jeff Nichols’s film Loving ), Britain didn’t have similar laws but the rigid class system allowed prejudice to flourish. The film shrewdly depicts the racism that Johnny faces as a black man while he grapples with the delicate emotions that have taken hold of his heart. During a beautifully shot scene that takes place in Greenwich Park and makes skillful use of the National Maritime Museum and The Royal Observatory, actor Earl Cameron delivers a poetic observation as the love-struck Johnny on the absurdity of bigotry and class discrimination:
“When you’re at the wheel of a ship at night, far at sea and nothing else to do, you think about a lot of things you don’t understand. You wonder why one man is born white and another isn’t. And how about God himself? What color is he? And the stars seem so close and the world so small in comparison to all the other worlds above you. It doesn’t seem to matter so much how we were born.” – Johnny (Earl Cameron), Pool of London
Released nearly a decade before Dearden’s own Sapphire and fifteen years before such controversial films as Patch of Blue (1965), Story of a Three-Day Pass (1967) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Pool of London’s approach to the subject of interracial romance is surprisingly bold and progressive. Bigotry is a subject that the director wrestled with throughout his career and he doesn’t shy away from the more unsavory aspects of human nature. But despite the film’s strong social moorings, Pool of London is no ham-handed message movie.
The film gets off to a slow start but if you stick with it you’ll be well-rewarded when this leisurely drama transforms into a suspense-filled crime thriller midway through. Diamond heists, car chases, muggings and murder merge in a combustible cocktail that defies expectations and makes Pool of London a highly-entertaining viewing experience.
Dearden is particularly apt at employing London as a picturesque backdrop for the stories he wants to tell. The city’s historic buildings, fog-shrouded docks, narrow streets and lush parks frequently become additional characters in his films with their own distinct voice and personality. Each location is presented in a unique manner, along with his lively parade of supporting players, that defines and embellishes the drama.
Dearden’s other directorial traits include his unusual camera placement, which is often low to the ground or facing upwards towards events happening above or overhead. This creates a strange kind of off-kilter intimacy with the material as well as the characters.
Bermuda-born Earl Cameron made his film debut in Pool of London and it’s a remarkable performance from an unexperienced screen actor. Cameron had previously performed on the London stage but as an aspiring black actor trying to find employment in 1940s Britian, he was typically offered bit parts or obliged to work as an understudy. In Pool of London, Cameron used his real-world experience laboring as a merchant seaman during WWII and his own interracial marriage to inform his role. That lent his sensitive portrayal of Johnny some genuine heart and soul and he creates a moving portrait of a man experiencing a great emotional upheaval.
It’s surprising that Cameron’s acting career didn’t take-off afterward but besides some scattershot roles in films such as Simba (1955), The Heart Within (1957), Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), Thunderball (1965), A Warm December (1973) and Dearden’s Sapphire, he principally worked in television including recurring roles on Dr. Who (1963-1989) and The Prisoner (1967-1968). In an interview with Xan Brooks at The Guardian earlier this year the actor, who celebrated his 100th birthday in August, discussed the trajectory of his career explaining that there was a dearth of roles written for black actors which made getting parts very difficult.
“Unless it was specified that this was a part for a black actor, they would never consider a black actor for the part. And they would never consider changing a white part to a black part. So that was my problem. I got mostly small parts, and that was extremely frustrating – not just for me but for other black actors. We had a very hard time getting worthwhile roles . . . Still not enough good parts.” – Earl Cameron, The Guardian interview (August 2017)
Pool of London is currently streaming on FilmStruck along with all the other Dearden films we’ve discussed here at Streamline. I hope our ongoing coverage of his work will inspire seasoned cinephiles as well as novice movie fans to explore the director’s filmography for themselves. Dearden’s desire to define, expose and examine bigotry while making exciting and entertaining cinema is as relevant today as it was 70-years ago.