I’ve a sneaking feeling that Kathleen Harrison could be the face of 2020 for me, how bizarre is that? Well, here she is again in Waterfront, from 1950. As is quickly becoming usual, Harrison is (apparently) effortless here- she’s clearly one of those character actors that have this natural ease with the camera and makes it all seem so simple, and yet remain so convincing. She clearly wasn’t cast against type, which helps her no end, playing the slightly befuddled but well-meaning matriarch of a struggling single-parent family in times when such things were frowned upon.
Robert Newton features as Peter McCabe, a worthless cad of a seafaring husband who walks out on his young family in 1919 to return to roving as a sailor, leaving his wife and two daughters to fend for themselves in the Liverpool slums near the docks. Making patently false promises to Nora, his eldest daughter, who can read through his lies with ease, McCabe has no intention of ever returning and fulfilling any husband/fatherly duties. Unbeknown to McCabe, his family’s lot is even more tenuous, because his wife (Kathleen Harrison) is pregnant with a third child, delivering a son a few months later, putting even more pressures upon them.
The family manages to struggle through, however, making a go of it through rough times in the slums. Fourteen years later, with the son George Alexander bright enough at school to get a scholarship and the grown girls finding boyfriends (Nora finding a young unemployed sailor struggling for work -played by Richard Burton, no less- and younger daughter Connie unwittingly falling for a lousy cad as untrustworthy as her father), the family is up-heaved by the sudden return of Peter McCabe who has been forced to return through his own misfortune, threatening to wreck the family again.
Waterfront is one of those great, old-fashioned human dramas that used to be popular in film but later became ‘relegated’ to television movies and soaps, I suppose, as films themselves turned towards the spectacular in order to distance themselves from the home entertainment on the smaller-screen. Partly a morality play showing good people with very little struggling to do the right thing, and those around them with lesser scruples, its a simple story about the human condition that is well told. The cast is excellent, really (Avis Scott really impressing as adult Nora), making the story really involving, and from the vantage point of 2020, the setting is utterly fascinating albeit that’s a particular quality unguessed back in 1950. This is a Liverpool that might have been familiar, I suppose, to the boys that became The Beatles when they were growing up, and is a clear reminder of how living conditions for the working-class have improved in the post-war years.
Its a solid effort- nothing astonishing, I guess, but then its not trying to be. There is some lovely location photography and night-time sequences (I don’t know why, but seeing genuinely night-time shooting as opposed to day-for-night shoots always surprises me in low-budget films like this) and other than the odd lack of actual scouse accents (likely the film trying to appease to international audiences) it just feels right. Its just telling a genuinely involving, dramatic story that back in the day might have been mildly shocking, even (one has to mindful of historical sensibilities, I think, with ‘old’movies). I really enjoyed this. The core dynamics and values are universal and timeless, making the film as timely and relatable as it ever was, really, and the previously mentioned appeal of seeing that lost world of post-war Britain is quite sublime; something of a time machine as so many films of that era seem to be.
Appearing on the Talking Pictures schedules, Waterfront is also available on DVD and Blu-ray from Network.