Saturday, February 05, 2011

Film Review--Sapphire (1959)

This week for DVD Verdict, I am reviewing the latest collection in Criterion's excellent Eclipse Series, Basil Dearden's London Underground. These four films, virtually unknown today but award winners at the time, are on DVD for the first time. Basil Dearden is a director I have no experience with, but it's an intriguing collection. I'll review the entire set as one on DVD Verdict and won't have the opportunity to give proper reviews for each film, so I do this here. First on the slate, Best Film at 1959's BAFTA Awards, Sapphire.

"We plan to show this prejudice as the stupid and illogical thing it is," so says Dearden in an interview during the production of Sapphire. That statement is telling of both the good and the bad of the film. On the whole Sapphire succeeds as an unpredictable mystery and a well-intentioned drama, but there are some of the same ham-handed moments here that afflicted similar but later American productions. Regardless, Basil Dearden makes a solid first impression.

Sapphire is a social problem film wrapped in a murder mystery and Dearden balances both sides fairly well. It's a very basic crime story, centering around the body of a young woman turned up in a park one morning. The death of this pretty, young, and white college student named Sapphire will scandalize the town, but not so much as the truth. When Sapphire's brother arranges to come from London to view the body, the police can't believe their eyes. Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron) has skin every bit as dark as Sapphire's was light. Much as the police stand in disbelief, it is true; Sapphire figured out that she was able to pass for white and got engaged to David Harris (Paul Massie), the son of a respectable family. Naturally, when the autopsy reveals pregnancy, the police look to David. He, along with his entire family, claims that he knew that she was black, didn't care, and loved her anyway. He's not being entirely honest, however, and it's in finding out the missing details that will lead to Sapphire's true killer.

I know little to nothing about the history of racial tensions in England, and I'm certainly not used to such direct and expressive displays in British films, so Sapphire took me as something of a surprise. The moment Dr. Robbins arrives, it becomes clear that this is pointed racial commentary but, like its American counterparts, focuses on the white side of racism, while the black population exists more as a set of symbols than as real characters. To solve the murder, the investigators have to cross into both worlds, each with its own share of animosity and revelation. The lead investigator (the great Nigel Patrick) is the progressive one, understanding from the beginning that the idea of justice has little to do with race. His second, though, is considerably more ignorant. Once her race is revealed, he becomes less concerned with justice and more bemused that he can't just know something about a race by looking at them.

It's white people having their eyes opened to their prejudices and, while that's a very tired trope today and feels ham-handed even for the time, it's still 1959 and just having had the conversation is important. It was a daring early picture for Dearden's production company, Artna Productions, and the film made its impact at the time. It's more effective at dealing with social problems than, say, the similarly-themed but nearly a decade older Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (spoiler alert: it's a black guy!), and a more artful film, overall. The melodrama is thick and the mystery genre conventions are in full effect, but it's a shot with a lovely understated style, full of muted color and heavy with Caribbean and African music. Had Douglas Sirk directed Stanley Kramer's overrated film, it might look something like this. The performances tend toward scene-chewing, but Dearden played the mystery to hilt so he could mask controversial viewpoints. That's an important point that Stanley Kramer never understood. If filmmakers have a political point, they cannot slap us across the face with their message. The only people who won't recoil from this are those who already agree. It's much better to ease audiences into uncomfortable positions, get them enjoying the story, and then implant the message in the brain. Sapphire isn't the best at this sort of subterfuge, but it does manage to entertain while delivering a surprisingly pointed message.

At first glance, there's little understanding why Basil Dearden has been so forgotten, but this is a nice first impression and I'm excited to see what comes after. Next up, The League of Gentlemen, a heist film, one of my favorite genres.