Doesn’t it drive you crazy when you know something is true but you can’t prove it?
Welcome to the world of a newspaper reporter (Ben Lyon) who covers the activities of a west-coast harbour in the 1933 drama I Cover the Waterfront. The movie is based on the true-life experiences of journalist Max Miller, who wrote a surprise bestseller about his waterfront escapades.
Just like the real-life Miller, reporter Lyon is your man for waterfront news. It doesn’t matter if it’s drug smuggling or illegal fishing. He’s got the story covered – whether he likes it or not.
Mostly he doesn’t like it. Lyon is certain that a local fisherman (Ernest Torrence) is smuggling Chinese immigrants, but he can’t prove it. Even when the body of a Chinese man is discovered, there isn’t enough proof to link the murder to Torrence. But Lyon can’t devote the time he needs to the story; his editor is obsessed with making headlines out of more trivial activities.
Torrence’s character as the fisherman/human trafficker is pure evil. He smuggles Chinese immigrants on his boat so they can work in the city’s laundromats – as slaves, no doubt. But if the Coast Guard approaches his boat with intentions to search, Torrence ties up the immigrant with heavy metal chains and drops the man overboard. In one scene, Torrence has had a man stuffed inside a giant shark in order to sneak past the Coast Guard.
(Oh dear. We shouldn’t have told you about that last scene. It’s a visual that will put you off seafood for a while.)
The wrench in these works is Claudette Colbert, who plays Torrence’s free-spirited daughter. She honestly believes her father is just a fisherman; she has no idea about the darker side of his business. Of course she meets Lyon, and falls in love with him, and has no idea he’s determined to bust her old man.
Although Torrence has an annoying habit of mumbling his lines, he is a good actor. We believe this man has no qualms about murdering people for the sake of convenience, yet in his scenes with Colbert one could not imagine a kinder, more doting father.
As talented as Torrence is, he’s no match for Colbert’s charisma. No one is. Colbert really does own every scene – this role is only one example of why she became a legend.
I Cover the Waterfront is known as a pre-code Hollywood film. These were movies made before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. The code was meant to ensure all characters behaved in morally acceptable ways and – here’s something we really like – the bad guys always got what they deserved. If you haven’t seen a pre-code film before, you’ll notice a few things that may raise an eyebrow.
We recommend I Cover the Waterfront as a fast-paced gem with the fabulous Claudette Colbert. But if you’re a real seafood lover, remember what we said about the stuffed shark scene.
I Cover the Waterfront: starring Claudette Colbert, Ben Lyon, Hobart Cavanaugh. Directed by James Cruze. Written by Max Miller and Wells Root. United Artists, 1933 B&W, 64 mins.