The film Tiger Bay is special to me because Tiger Bay is the setting for my Samantha Smith novels.
Filmed during the winter of 1958-59, Tiger Bay stars Hayley Mills in her first screen role, her father, John, the ‘German James Dean’, Horst Buchholz, as a Polish sailor, Korchinsky and a host of fine character actors. Originally a novel, the screenplay was adapted by John Hawkesworth and Shelly Smith and the film was directed by J. Lee Thompson.
From the start, J. Lee Thompson wanted John Mills in the film and so he arrived at the actor’s house to discuss the role. There, he saw Hayley Mills acting out TV commercials in the garden. Sensing that she would be ideal for the project, the director organized a screen test for Hayley Mills. The young girl, twelve at the time, shone during the screen test and was offered the part. However, there was one problem – in the novel the child was a boy, so John Hawkesworth and Shelley Smith had to adapt the role to suit Hayley Mills and in doing so they created Gillie, a ten-year-old tomboy.
The film opens with Korchinsky returning from sea. He is furious to discover that his lover has left him for another man. An argument ensues followed by a crime of passion when Korchinsky shoots his lover. The crime is witnessed by Gillie who steals the murder weapon.
From that moment on Tiger Bay develops over two interweaving strands. In the first strand Korchinsky abducts Gillie while in the second strand Inspector Graham (John Mills) attempts to uncover the murderer and then find Gillie.
In a key scene in the film Korchinsky considers pushing Gillie from a transporter bridge into the water. However, he is not a murderer at heart and even though this action would ensure his salvation, he cannot bring himself to do it. A friendship then develops between Gillie and Korchinsky. She dreams of becoming a sailor while he seeks to escape to sea.
Filmed in the late 1950s, a time of innocence compared with today, the relationship between Korchinsky and Gillie is a natural one with no undercurrent of sexual tension. They are two lost souls and their friendship is both believable and touching.
At the dénouement of the film Korchinsky has to decide between freedom and saving Gillie. He is set to escape on a ship, only to discover that she has stowed away, soon to fall into the sea. Korchinsky’s decision brings 102 minutes of quality filmmaking to a satisfying conclusion.
Loudoun Square, a prime location in the film, Tiger Bay, c1958
Tiger Bay was filmed in the Tiger Bay district of Cardiff, in the Welsh mountains and at Talybont along the River Usk. The location scenes were filmed first, then the scenes in the studio. As well as excellent entertainment, Tiger Bay also stands as a wonderful social document, capturing life as it was in the 1950s along with the prevailing attitudes of the time.
Hayley Mills, and the cast as a whole, is outstanding and although Tiger Bay was intended to be a one-off for her, her performance attracted the attention of the Disney studios. A year later she was filming Pollyanna for Disney and a successful film and stage career was launched.
If you enjoy quality storytelling and beautifully filmed and directed movies, then I urge you to watch Tiger Bay.