The 1959 film Tiger Bay, directed by J. Lee Thompson, takes its title from the area of Cardiff now known as Cardiff Bay. As the name suggests, the district is located along the waterfront, encompassing the city’s docks; consequently, in addition to being home to an ethnically and culturally diverse, immigrant-rich population (at least fifty-seven different nationalities were represented there in the 1950s), it also serves as a temporary host to countless people coming and going by boat. In this kind of setting, it’s inevitable that strangers with little or nothing in common should find themselves crossing paths on occasion — although few such chance encounters are apt to bind two strangers together the way this one does.
Stranger Number One, in this case, is Bronislav Korchinsky (Horst Buchholz), a Polish sailor who’s just arrived in Cardiff. The Welsh capital holds a special place in his heart: it’s the home of his girlfriend, Anya (Yvonne Mitchell), a fellow Pole whom he intends to marry. His joy is quickly deflated, however, when he goes to her apartment and finds that she no longer lives there, allegedly because of “some pecuniary embarrassment” — in spite of the fact that Korchinsky has been sending her money regularly. When he tracks her down at her new residence, the rest of the story emerges: she’s tired of waiting around for a sailor who’s always away, tired of being indebted to Korchinsky for helping her in the past (she mentions being in a camp at one point), and she’s found another man more to her taste. This last revelation is too much for Korchinsky to handle. He becomes violent, flipping over a table and then attacking Anya, who pulls a gun out of a drawer in self-defense, though after a struggle Korchinsky manages to get it away from her. Harsh words are exchanged; Korchinsky fires the gun, over and over; Anya, fatally wounded, collapses to the floor.
Korchinsky scarcely has time to comprehend what he’s done before a noise in the hallway gives him another shock: there was a witness to his crime. Enter Stranger Number Two, one Gillian “Gillie” Evans (Hayley Mills), age eleven. (Tiger Bay was, for all intents and purposes, Mills’s screen debut, though IMDb does list an uncredited appearance as an infant in the 1947 film So Well Remembered, starring her father, John Mills.) Gillie lives in the same building as Anya; in fact, she directs Korchinsky there when he arrives in her neighborhood in search of his girlfriend’s new abode. A curious, mischievous, trouble-prone girl, she can’t resist peeking through Anya’s letterbox when she hears shouting from within (shouting in Polish, no less), and she keeps watching, transfixed, up until the murder takes place. At that, she staggers back and inadvertently drops her cap-filled toy bomb, creating the noise that alerts Korchinsky to her presence. She rushes to hide, terrified — yet not so terrified that she can’t steal the gun after Korchinsky stashes it behind the gas meter in the hallway, not even when she and the killer make eye contact. He’s prevented from chasing her by the sudden appearance of Barclay (Anthony Dawson), Anya’s other man, but he remains determined to prevent her from telling anyone what she saw.
This is, of course, a perilous state of affairs for a child (or an adult, for that matter), and the film contains numerous tense, suspenseful scenes in which Gillie is under threat. Then, something unusual happens: the two characters become friends, and they go on the run together. Korchinsky is acting in self-interest, certainly — he has to keep her away from other people until he can flee the country, lest she incriminate him — but he genuinely grows to like her. At the very least, she’s understanding and supportive.
While Gillie might be expected to fear or hate a man whom she witnessed committing a murder, the reality is quite the opposite. For one thing, she thinks that Korchinsky was justified in killing Anya, an opinion influenced by what she’s heard from the adults around her (and not by the couple’s argument, which was in Polish and thus incomprehensible to her). “Nobody in our street will blame you,” she insists to him. “They said she gave our place a bad name. Anyway, Auntie says it’s better to be dead if you’re so wicked.” (Korchinsky tells her to shut up — a murderer more sympathetic to his victim than her judgmental neighbors are.) Besides that, he’s an exciting figure in her eyes. Perhaps the violence is actually part of his appeal; Gillie, before meeting him, is desperate for a toy gun so that she can play cowboys with the other children in her neighborhood, which is why the real one she obtains is such a prize to her. He’s also someone who’s traveled the world, and Gillie is thrilled by the tales of adventure that he acts out for her, exaggerated though they no doubt are.
“I always wanted to go to sea,” Gillie says. Beyond her desire for adventure, it’s not surprising that she wants to get away from her current life. Her backstory isn’t entirely clear, but she’s English rather than Welsh (her accent is one clue, and a boy tells her to “go back to London” when he wants her to leave him alone), and she lives with her aunt (Megs Jenkins), suggesting that her parents are either dead or otherwise out of the picture. Although the aunt isn’t overly harsh, Gillie’s bad behavior frustrates her to no end, forcing her to keep after the girl and scold her constantly. “End up in jail, that’s what’ll happen to you, mark my words,” she says after catching her niece in a lie about money. Gillie is a habitual, even compulsive liar, and she can be noisy, rough, disobedient and rude as well. (Whether any of this is rooted in her personal history and the absence of her parents isn’t made explicit, but it’s a definite possibility.) Other adults in the apartment building always seem to be yelling at her, making no effort to hide their (often justified) irritation, and she doesn’t get on with other children especially well either.
Her relationship with Korchinsky is different. Maybe it’s because they’re both outsiders, outcasts, even within the diverse population of Tiger Bay — he because of his crime, she because of her personality; maybe there’s still a certain childlike quality in the killer. At any rate, a bond is formed, and Gillie becomes desperate to protect her new friend. (Oddly enough, Mills’s character in the 1961 film Whistle Down the Wind would also find herself acting as protector to a potentially dangerous fugitive.) She’ll do whatever it takes to hide his guilt until he can reach safety, whether that means trying to deceive a tenacious police superintendent (John Mills) or pinning the blame on someone else — but she just might be in over her head.
Grini, Jessica. “Tiger Bay History: The Fascinating Transition into Cardiff Bay.” The Exchange Hotel, 27 September 2017. https://exchangehotelcardiff.co.uk/blog/tiger-bay-history-cardiff-bay/