Milo Garner looks back on the 1950s crime noir classic Pool of London, which has recently been restored for Blu-ray re-release.
Tying in with BFI’s recent Black Star initiative that hopes to highlight black talent on the silver screen, comes a restoration of Ealing Studios’ Pool of London – a 1951 film famous for being the first to depict a contemporary interracial relationship in Britain. But beyond this historic importance, does the film still merit consideration?
Pool of London is primarily divided into two plotlines. The first concerns Johnny (Earl Cameron CBE), a Jamaican sailor who falls in love with a girl during a stop off in London. As mentioned above it is indeed a white woman he falls in love with, but transgressive as this might sound it only impacts the story very slightly, with race referenced a grand total of four times, and explicitly only once. Though still somewhat progressive for 1951, the promise of these themes being developed is sadly left unfulfilled. Further, the romance itself lacks any depth, drama, or even chemistry – the latter not helped by Earl Cameron’s sketchy delivery. Though not unwatchable this section of the film is certainly uninteresting, and what is ostensibly the B-plot ultimately saves the picture.
This second strand concerns Johnny’s American friend, Dan (Bonar Colleano), a fellow sailor and crafty smuggler. Though typically engaged in petty crimes, bringing cigarettes and nylons from ship to shore, he finds himself involved with a more professional breed of crook. It is at that point that the narrative and the filmmaking pick up substantially, with aimless romance replaced by riveting car chases and a particularly well done heist scene. In the first half the noir visuals seem unjustified, but after the forty-minute mark the shadows draped over the real-life London locations begin to communicate the criminality and paranoia that become central themes of the film. Despite one pivotal scene being a rather lazy deus ex machina, the second half of the film picks up considerably with exciting action scenes and interesting visuals, even if the baggage of Johnny’s plotline can’t quite be shed.
The technical aspects of Pool of London are mostly average, the highlight being the cinematography that makes ample use of light and shadow in the locations surrounding the eponymous Pool of London. The editing, on the other hand, sometimes feels rough with certain events overlapping in cuts, though this is mostly forgivable. More notable is StudioCanal’s superb restorative work – though the copy here reviewed was only in standard definition it looked near perfect, especially for what is essentially an obscure film. There is little noise, grain, or other dirt, and the images never appeared over-exposed or too dark – an accurate balance is essential in presenting film noir.
Alongside the film a few extras were supplied. The first is an eight minute interview with Earl Cameron, who discusses both the historical background of his work on the film, as well as the importance of the racial themes featured therein. Though these themes are weakly drawn in the film itself, the interview is illuminating; Cameron didn’t get another job for a year after releasing Pool of London, despite positive notices at the time, no doubt due to the particular narrative his character was involved in. Besides this is a surprisingly in-depth featurette on the locations in the film. Lasting over seventeen minutes and narrated by film historian Richard Dacre, it details every location in the film, all of which are in London, and compares how they have changed from 1951 to the present day. Though presented a little awkwardly, this is otherwise an excellent look at the development of London both within the context of the film and without.
Taken together, Pool of London perhaps doesn’t deserve any special place in cinematic history beyond its social importance, but with that said it remains a fairly interesting genre movie, and one with some notable features. The short running time, paired with a fairly good pace, means that even in its worst sections it never bores or overstays its welcome; for all its artistic deficiencies it remains at its core an entertaining film.
Featured image: Studio Canal