An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)


To view Tiger Bay click here.

Tiger Bay is one of my all-time favorite films that I made. I still can’t get over the thrill I got when I first saw Hayley on the screen, with those wonderful big eyes … She was an ideal little person to work with because you knew … when you just looked through the lens at her that the camera loved her … You just knew that she had such a rapport with the camera and that’s what filmmaking is about – the rapport between the camera and the artist. It’s that magic that you can not explain. You either have it or you don’t. The very best actor or actress in the world, if the camera doesn’t love her, half the performance has gone.” – J. Lee Thompson

Twelve-year-old Hayley Mills made her screen debut in Tiger Bay (1959) playing Gillie, a rambunctious doe-eyed orphan living with her aunt in the British working-class neighborhood of Tiger Bay. When Gillie unwittingly witnesses a Polish sailor (Horst Buchholz) shoot his girlfriend (Yvonne Mitchell), she steals the gun to impress her young playmates and protect the charismatic killer. Over the course of the film Gillie and the murderer develop an unusual bond while trying to evade a determined police superintendent (John Mills) and escape prosecution.

This atypical British crime drama directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone [1961], Cape Fear [1962], Eye of the Devil [1967]) is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck. The film has long been out of print on DVD and rarely airs on American television so the opportunity to stream Tiger Bay should be welcomed by anyone interested in seeing the film that earned Thompson two BAFTA nominations and netted Haley Mills an award for “Most Promising Newcomer” in 1960.

TIGER BAY (1959)

Although Mills received plenty of accolades and critical attention for her performance as the wayward Gillie, her role was originally written with an adolescent boy in mind. That all changed when J. Lee Thompson took over directing duties and asked his friend, Haley’s father John Mills (In Which We Serve [1942], Great Expectations [1946], Hobson’s Choice [1954]), to play the role of the police investigator. While meeting with Mills at his family home to discuss the production, the director spotted Hayley playing outdoors dressed in boyish clothing and was immediately smitten with her. Thompson insisted on hiring Haley for the role of Gillie and her father reluctantly agreed. With only a month to prepare and no professional training under her belt, 12-year-old Haley was cast in Tiger Bay and according to her father’s autobiography, her natural talent blossomed under Thompson’s tutelage.

“I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. She looked as if she’d been born in front of the camera. All the other children I had suffered with in films had to be told continually not to look into the lens. Lee shot close-ups with the camera two feet away from her face. She looked left, right, over it, below it, but never at it. I am usually very secure in my lines, but that morning I was so astonished at what was going on that I dried up at least three times.” – John Mills

Despite her inexperience, Haley Mills had grown up in a household of actors that included her father John Mills as well as her mother Mary Haley Bell (Vintage Wine [1935], Love in Exile [1936], The Shrike [1955]) and sister Juliet Mills (The Rare Breed [1966], Oh! What a Lovely War [1969], Avanti! [1972]) so it’s not surprising that she inherited some of the family’s talent. What is remarkable is how effortlessly she articulates the role of Gillie. By all accounts, Haley lived a charmed life. Before making Tiger Bay she attended the prestigious Elmhurst Ballet School in the U.K. and her parents were both loving and supportive. In contrast, the character of Gillie is a streetwise working-class girl without parental guidance who harbors an obsession for gangster movies and guns.

TIGER BAY (1959)

Along with the debut of Haley Mills, Tiger Bay is notable for being Horst Buchholz’s first English-language film. Buchholz (The Magnificent Seven [1960], One, Two, Three [1961], Fanny [1961]) was nicknamed “the German James Dean” in Europe thanks to his jaw-dropping good looks and impressive acting abilities displayed in films such as Teenage Wolfpack (1956) and Wet Asphalt (1957). With his mop of unruly dark hair and lopsided smile, he also makes an unforgettable impression in Tiger Bay as Korchinsky, a remorseful sailor who kills his girlfriend in a sudden and spontaneous crime of passion.

While the production shares much in common with other British thrillers of the period, J. Lee Thompson’s film is a noteworthy predecessor to the British New Wave thanks to its stark style and setting. The bombed-out buildings, deteriorating churches and ramshackle apartments that comprise the Tiger Bay neighborhood make a striking backdrop for this taut, unhurried crime drama. The area, now known as Cardiff Bay, was populated by immigrant merchant seamen and dockworkers all struggling to carve out a place for themselves. Their desperation and hope infuses the film and is embodied in the characters of young Gillie and the sailor, Korchinsky. Singularly, neither Gillie nor Korchinsky is particularly likable. She is a chronic liar and thief. He is a murderer. But together this unlikely pair manage to bring out the best in one another and we are inspired to root for them as they run from the law.

Tiger Bay is particularly unique in the way it approaches the constantly evolving relationship that develops between a child and a murderer. Gillie is drawn to Korchinsky for many reasons including a yearning for adventure and unspoken desire to escape her unhappy home life. But she is also a young woman teetering on the threshold of adulthood and Korchinsky is an attractive and charismatic figure who appeals to her romantic imagination. The film wisely avoids any suggestion of inappropriate behavior between the two, but their unusual friendship evokes Bonnie and Clyde. In that regard, Tiger Bay is the kind of movie that could probably never get made today. The film’s ambiguous morals and refusal to align itself with the law became typical of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s but in 1959, Tiger Bay was a genuinely risky film and it can still raise eyebrows today.

Kimberly Lindbergs

11 Responses An Unusual Friendship: Tiger Bay (1959)
Posted By Dennis : May 11, 2017 10:43 am

Thanks so much for this post! I am currently in the process of watching some of the old classics and Tiger Bay was first on the list! I’m glad you shared your perspective on the film.

Posted By Christina Wehner : May 11, 2017 1:54 pm

Lovely review! I saw this once on youtube and was so impressed with it…and both Buchholz and Mills. That’s an interesting thought that the film probably could not be made today.

I only recently learned of FilmStruck, but am quite excited for it and the opportunity to see films like Tiger Bay!

Posted By Doug : May 11, 2017 6:23 pm

Another fine post, Kimberly-thank you.
The first picture of Mills with a gun reminded me of another film-”Ponette”, where a young girl carries around a gun in a scene, though I think it was a toy. I just checked and “Ponette” came out 21 years ago, which doesn’t seem possible.
I hadn’t heard of “Tiger Bay” but that is why I enjoy coming to this page-much to learn and discover.
I bought “Judex” after Greg’s post, and it is delightful.
Susan’s post on “The Seventh Seal” motivated me to watch it again.
Looking forward to more fine posts here, which I still think of as “Morlocks”.

Posted By George : May 11, 2017 6:34 pm

“Looking forward to more fine posts here, which I still think of as “Morlocks”.”

Me, too! Wish there was a place where we could discuss the great Gable-Crawford movies TCM has been showing this month. I have to look at film buffs’ Twitter feeds for that.

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : May 11, 2017 7:16 pm

“Sky West and Crooked” — written by Mary Hayley Bell — another good Hayley Mills movie. I would like to see “Whistle Down the Wind” as well… It’s easy to forget how good she was (when she wasn’t Disneyfied).

Posted By Melvin Lee : May 11, 2017 8:35 pm

I miss the “Morlocks” too!

Like one of the previous comments, I love coming here to discover movies I didn’t know existed. Thank you! I only know Hayley Mills from her Disney movies so I will keep a lookout for Tiger Bay. Those of us outside of the US need to find other ways to track down our movie interests.

Posted By LD : May 12, 2017 5:20 am

TIGER BAY was a film shown often on tv in the early 1960′s. That was when I saw it and have to admit I was too young to fully understand or appreciate the film. Have not seen it since.

Also miss the Morlocks and their ability to discuss not only the film of their choosing but concepts and the occasional book.

Posted By George : May 12, 2017 3:16 pm

I’m pretty sure that THAT DARN CAT and THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS are the only Hayley Mills movies I’ve seen, that that was several decades ago. (As a boy, I wasn’t about to sit through POLLYANNA!) It is rather startling that she’s now 71.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2017 6:38 pm

George: FYI. I wrote about the Crawford-Gable movies for TCM’s Backlot, which is their subscription movie fan club.

Posted By kingrat : May 12, 2017 7:46 pm

Really looking forward to seeing TIGER BAY. WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND would be a superb addition. When it was shown at the TCM Festival about six years ago, I thought it would soon be showing up on TCM or on Criterion, but no such luck.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 14, 2017 12:43 pm

Thanks for the comments! I hope my post will encouraged some people to watch or re-watch Tiger Bay. I’ve written about how much I love Haley Mills in the past and this is definitely one of her best roles.

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