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A beautiful young woman named Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) has been murdered. Her bloodied corpse was found in London’s Hampstead Heath park. A seasoned detective (Nigel Patrick) and his young partner (Michael Craig) are called on to investigate the case but as they try to piece together the puzzle of this post-war whodunit the mystery only deepens. Behind her tweed skirts and pale complexion, Sapphire was keeping many secrets including the fact that she was the biracial child of a black mother and white father. Did race play a part in her murder? Is a family member involved? Or was she killed by one of her male suitors? Before the killer is unmasked, this curious mystery takes some surprising twists and turns. In the process viewers get a firsthand look at London’s vibrant city streets undergoing a tectonic shift as denizens of white working-class pubs and black jazz clubs mix, mingle and occasionally fall in love. We also get a taste of the revolting racism quietly simmering underneath this modern cultural melting-pot.
Sapphire (1959) is one of five films directed by Basil Dearden currently streaming on FilmStruck and The Criterion Channel along with The League of Gentlemen (1960), which I wrote about last month. As I mentioned in my previous piece, Dearden, much like American director Stanley Kramer, was often singled out for making “message films.” Sapphire is no exception due to the way it incorporates the issue of racial discrimination into the plot but that doesn’t take away from the mystery at the heart of this British thriller. In fact, in watching the film today I was struck by how contemporary many of its themes were and was equally impressed by the ways in which the film demonstrated human bias in individuals, groups and institutions within the scope of a crime film. We like to think that we have advanced since 1959 when it comes to the subject of race relations, but we still have a long way to go.
Much like Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Dearden’s film shows that intolerance can cut both ways and discrimination takes different forms in different communities. Groups of white and black characters openly share their struggles and concerns about race with the police, as they search for clues to Sapphire’s brutal murder. But the film also doesn’t let the detectives off the hook. While the eldest and most experienced investigator (sensitively played by Nigel Patrick) presents well-reasoned opinions about the case, a fledgling detective with a churlish disposition (Michael Craig) openly conveys racist and sexist ideas, revealing that these two prejudices are rarely exclusive. The racism infecting law enforcement is particularly noticeable given the different ways suspects are handled. White suspects are treated with kid-gloves implying the police believe they are more trustworthy while one black suspect is openly chased down, cornered and threatened with violence. There are also hopeful moments in this message movie, particularly in the way the film portrays children interacting without bias and treating adults of all races with respect.
Regardless of the film’s social concerns, Sapphire is a damn good mystery. Dearden’s direction is dynamic and involving, pulling us deep into the drama as it unravels like a set of Russian nesting dolls, while giving viewers a real sense of place. We become immersed in London of the late 1950s and this feeling is enhanced by Philip Green’s modern jazz-inspired score (performed by Johnny Dankworth and his orchestra) and especially Harry Waxman’s exceptional color cinematography. Color crime films were a rarity in Britain circa 1959 but Dearden and Waxman wisely choose to shoot Sapphire with Eastmancolor and the effect is enchanting. The film vibrates with life thanks to its rich palette of pulsing reds, bright blues, industrial greys and lush pastels. Waxman is probably best remembered for his outstanding photography in the brilliant British noir, Brighton Rock (1947) and he invokes the same moody atmosphere here. Whether he’s shooting the green pastoral landscape of Hampstead Heath or the fog-shrouded streets of London, Waxman knows how to generate suspense with his camera. Unsurprisingly, after making Sapphire, Waxman would go on to photograph a number of notable horror films including The Nanny (1965), Twisted Nerve (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973).
Speaking of horror films, fans should keep an eye out for a brief uncredited appearance by the lovely Barbara Steele (Black Sunday , Pit and the Pendulum , 8 ½ ) in one of her earliest screen roles. The British scream queen plays a college student at a local coffee shop. She only has a few lines of dialogue but you cannot miss her big dark eyes and vampire-like smile.
While a lot of the acting in Sapphire is rather rudimentary, Nigel Patrick (The Browning Version , Raintree Country , The League of Gentlemen ) is exceptional as the eldest detective trying to solve a complex crime while tackling the racism it arouses in and outside of police headquarters. Also keep an eye out for the handsome Bermuda-born actor Earl Cameron (The Heart Within , Thunderball , Inception ) as Sapphire’s brother and Afro-Guyanese actor Harry Baird (The Story of a Three-Day Pass , The Italian Job , The Oblong Box ) as one of the prime suspects. However, my favorite performance in Sapphire belongs to Yvonne Mitchell (Queen of Spades , The Divided Heart , Tiger Bay ) who is very good as the sister of Sapphire’s fiancé. As a single parent trying to manage twin girls, Yvonne is justifiably prickly when police begin to question her family’s involvement in the murder and exhibits some nasty character quirks that defy her straight-laced outward appearance.
When Sapphire was released in 1959 it created quite a stir. Britain had recently experienced the notorious Notting Hill race riots and the film’s bold attempt to address racial prejudice was greeted with mixed reviews. Despite any negative press in the U.K., the film was warmly received by the black community in the U.S. where it was praised in magazines such as Ebony and it received a coveted BAFTA Award in 1960 for Best British Film. It’s been suggested that the adverse response to Sapphire led to a dearth of British films featuring black performers and their community’s concerns and that’s hard to argue with, but it does make a great double feature with Basil Dearden’s modern update of Shakespeare’s Othello, All Night Long (1962). Like Dearden’s Sapphire, All Night Long features a diverse cast of black and white actors and addresses racial bias although not as directly. Both Sapphire and All Night Long are currently available to stream on FilmStruck.