The cargo ship Earl of Dunbar sails up the Thames into London, and docks at the port there, offering the sailors a chance for some much-anticipated shore leave. Two of those sailors are Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano) and Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron), two best friends who look out for one another, Dan being American and Johnny Jamaican, so used to being abroad in unfamiliar circumstances. But Dan has gotten himself involved with some shady characters, not that he asks too many questions, he simply thinks it will be a case of smuggling the sort of material through customs that his lady friends are used to receiving from him, and not realising there are higher stakes that will drag innocent Johnny into his web of deceit and more...
Pool of London was an Ealing production, and while these days they are better known for their comedies they also enjoyed success with their healthy drama output. This one was significant for, as with a number of their works, it took on a social issue to offset the main plot, in this case a smuggling thriller about stolen diamonds and the murder that had resulted from that. The issue this time around was racial, as Cameron was one of the few black actors in Britain of the day, and that was capitalised on for this, his debut (though he had plenty of stage experience). He could not have asked for a better introduction, as arguably Johnny was the central character in the story, an innocent finding love in unexpected places.
He does so with Londoner Pat, played by Susan Shaw who was to be Colleano's wife, though that union had a tragic end as he was killed in a car crash in 1958, an event that shocked Britain as he had been one of the most popular films stars in this country. A New Yorker by birth, he was adopted by the United Kingdom as one of those stars from across the Atlantic who appeared in local films ostensibly to broaden their appeal to the lucrative North American market, but this also had the useful effect of adding an exotic accent to homegrown efforts that won great favour with the resident audiences. Poor Susan never recovered from his sudden demise: she turned to drink and died destitute a couple of decades later, a terrible fate for a lovely actress.
Or for anyone, really, but watching her light up the screen, not with Colleano but with Cameron, was a genuine treat, not least because of how poignant each scene that went by became. They meet by chance as associates of Dan, and really start getting along as Pat shows Johnny around the capital over the successive nights of his leave, so that by the point they have become familiar and truly like each other, we can tell by each performer's beautifully acted reserve that they would love to take this nascent relationship further, indeed the manner in which Shaw and Cameron behave it's clear they would are aching to throw their arms around one another and commit to making something of this connection. However, it is also clear they are living in 1951, and such behaviour between a black man and a white woman is a social taboo; we also witness the casual racism (and not so casual racism) Johnny suffers and see how it may anger him, but how he doesn't feel it's worth confronting either when the odds are stacked against him.
For that reason, what could have been a run of the mill suspense yarn was given some depth by its carefully worked out characterisations and sense of injustice. Director Basil Dearden (who would die in a car accident too) was regarded as a capable pair of hands in his profession, but he had the ability to be more than that and his location work here, capturing a London that even by the twenty-first century was long gone, was exemplary, as was his guidance of the cast. Aside from Colleano, Shaw and Cameron there was also Shakespearean thesp Renée Asherson as Dan's potential love interest, a conscience for his roguish personality, and Moira Lister as the woman he is actually seeing, plus another tragic actress, Joan Dowling as her conniving sister. Indeed, spotters of well-kent faces in British cinema would have a field day, starting with James Robertson Justice as the Scottish Chief of the Dunbar who adds a little comedy drunk act to the proceedings. The thrill plot was more than serviceable, easy to understand why the breezy Colleano was such a beloved personality, but if anything the thwarted romance was what made Pool of London vital as your heart went out to the unlucky Johnny. A real gem. Music by John Addison.
[The nicely restored Blu-ray has an interview with the 99-year-old Cameron, a guide to the filming locations, and a gallery as extras.]