Sunday, 5 April 2015

Sapphire (1959)

Made in 1959, just one year after the Notting Hill riots and a little before the more permissive '60s, Basil Dearden's Sapphire is a great and detailed depiction of ethnic tensions in 1950s London and, as such, it is culturally and socially significant as much as it is a great police procedural film.

When the body of a young white girl is found in the undergrowth on Hampstead Heath,  Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and his colleague Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) are called in to investigate and find that the murder victim was a young student called Sapphire - three months pregnant and not as white as she seems; she is in fact of mixed race, born to a black mother and a white father. The search for her murderer leads them to her white boyfriend David Harris, a gifted architecture student, and a tragic web of lies that saw Sapphire pass herself off as white among the bigoted society of London.

A multifaceted film, Sapphire not only plays on the murder mystery aspect presenting the fears and guilt of the many suspects, but also in revealing, beneath the veneer of civilised respectability, the insecurities and small minded prejudices of ordinary people. And it really is a strong murder mystery, with Dearden expertly wringing out every drop of tension towards the revelation of both the guilty party and the details of the murdered girl's life. 

Earl Cameron provides the reveal of Sapphire's true ethnicity, playing her brother Dr Robbins, a decent middle class black man, well aware of his colour and what it excludes him from in life. Sapphire is especially notable for showing a successful, middle-class black community - something which is sadly and ridiculously still all too rare even in today's 'modern' cinema - though it does have, in contrast to Cameron's superb understated playing, some black gangster caricatures in the hidden London our two detectives delve deeper into. 

Patrick and Craig play the detective duo extremely well. Whilst it's perhaps wishful thinking that officers of the Met in the 1950s were so gentlemanly, middle class and polite, the film does at least depict Craig as the more prejudiced with some pretty disgusting comments - a neat contrast to Patrick's more open minded senior, for whom the war and the fight against fascism no doubt shaped his character. You can trace a line from these two here right the way through to the recent BBC '60s set crime drama, George Gently.

But the best intentions don't always make for a wholly satisfying production and Sapphire does slip up on occasion to present its own prejudices; equating a young woman living alone in London with promiscuity, as well as several incidences of unchallenged racism. But this is reportage, and you have to accept that this was what the country - the world, even - was like in 1959.

1 comment:

  1. Great comments on a movie I like a lot, and I remember seeing it as a kid. Love the moment when Craig realises the girl bopping to the music in the nightclub is mixed race too, as they just can't resist those bongo drums ! Yvonne Mitchell is marvellous again here, Nigel Patrick was terrific too in the 1960 Trials of Oscar Wilde, as Oscar's defence council, Finch is a perfect Wilde, Yvonne Mitchell again is his wife Constance and John Fraser's Bosie is just as petulant as Jude Law's in that more recent version. Lionel Jeffries is a demented Marquess of Queensbury and James Mason too excels.