The Pool of London is a tidal section of the River Thames, and location of the original Port of London. It’s a key location for shipping, and home not only to legitimate trade but also to smuggling and all manner of unofficial business dealings. The Pool supplies the setting and the spirit as well as the title for Basil Dearden’s 1951 Brit Noir film Pool of London, which centers on several members of the crew of a merchant ship. Like many of the best film noirs, Pool of London manages to sneak something extra into what is primarily a crime film—a tender romance between a Jamaican sailor and a white London woman, which was in fact the first interracial relationship portrayed in British film.
As the film opens, the merchant ship Dunbar has arrived in the port and the crew are preparing to go ashore. Several are planning on a little light smuggling—nylon stockings, packs of cigarettes, and the like—including the amiable schemer Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano), aided by his pal Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron, one of the first black actors to star in British films). Dan and Johnny may be equal on the ship, however, but on land Johnny encounters quite different treatment from his white shipmates, something of which he’s acutely aware but also resigned to accepting as the way things are. A chance meeting with the ticket seller at a theatre (Susan Shaw) leads to a date, during which time she declares that a person’s place of birth (and by extension, their race) shouldn’t matter, while he wearily agrees while also noting that shouldn’t and doesn’t are two different things.
Meanwhile, Dan has been recruited into a smuggling scheme with stakes higher than he realizes. A theatre acrobat, Charlie Vernon (Max Adrian), wants Dan to carry a small package back to his ship and transport it to Europe, and doesn’t specify what is in the package or how it was acquired. In fact, the package contains stolen diamonds, which were acquired at the cost of a security guard’s life, which is several orders of magnitude beyond the sort of thing he normally engages in. Worse, Johnny is holding the goods, so Dan has to decide whether to go on being slick or to step up and do the right thing for once.
One of the great pleasures of Pool of London is its expert use of London locations—watching it, you feel like you’ve gotten into a time machine and traveled back to the 1950s, where you can get a first-hand view of a London still showing the effects of World War II. The audio commentary by Bryan Reesman mentions details about many of these locations, while a featurette with Richard Dacre takes you to some of the same places as they appear today. The black and white cinematography of Gordon Dines is also a strong point of this film—it’s not showy, but exploits the familiar conventions of film noir to place Pool of London firmly within that genre. | Sarah Boslaugh
Pool of London is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman, a locations featurette with film historian Richard Dacre, and an interview with actor Earl Cameron.