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DVD Review: BASIL DEARDEN'S LONDON UNDERGROUND (ECLIPSE SERIES 25)



Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1959 - 1962
Cast: Nigel Patrick, Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Roger Livesey, Dirk Bogarde
Director: Basil Dearden
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 06h:39m:00s
Genre(s): drama

"I think I was right. Hate killed Sapphire." - Superintendant Hazard (Nigel Patrick)

BASIL DEARDEN'S LONDON UNDERGROUND (ECLIPSE SERIES 25)

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Even given some weaknesses, the four films of this collection are never less than competent and entertaining. In their own quiet ways, this neglected director may have to guide Britain through a tumultuous time into a more tolerant post-war world.

Movie Grade: B+

DVD Grade: A

Over thirty years as a filmmaker, British director Basil Dearden wrote, produced, and directed dozens of films in a variety of genres. Still, he remains largely neglected, with a reputation build more on efficiency and competence more than brilliance. The four films of Basil Dearden’s London Underground demonstrate the talents of a more nuanced, and far gutsier director. Starting in the late 1950s, Dearden left the world of London’s Ealing Studios and set out on his own as a largely independent filmmaker with like-minded producer Michael Relph. Even given Dearden’s weaknesses, their output represents some of the most daring social message films of a tumultuous era.

Sapphire, from 1959, is the earliest of the films in this collection. Conversely, but appropriately, it’s the only one in color. It’s structured as a fairly simple police procedural with a small mystery at its heart, of the type popular in Britain during the 50s. As such, it begins with a body in the park, a stunning young beauty who we come to know as Sapphire: the eponymous character dead before the opening credits. In Twin Peaks/Laura Palmer-style, Sapphire’s influence in death is disproportionate to her status in life. Nigel Patrick (the first of many British acting stalwarts to appear across this set) plays Superintendant Hazard, in charge of the investigation. Sapphire’s fiancée David, naturally, comes to top the list of suspects. In the first and most shocking plot-twist, the girl’s out-of-town brother Dr. Robbins shows up in Hazard’s office with an enormous orchestral swell: he’s black, you see.

"What sort of girl was your sister?"

"Happy, lively, exactly as she looked. No...no. That's not quite true, is it?"

Sapphire has been passing for white, living in the white world of late-50s London, and having largely abandoned the black community. What’s more, it’s determined that she was pregnant. If David wasn’t the prime suspect before, he rockets to the top of the list. An up-and-coming student, a pregnant black girlfriend could’ve done a rather significant amount of damage to a budding career. David’s family also seems rather a bit too blasé about Sapphire’s race. In protesting a bit too much, it comes quickly to seem as though they’re hiding something. Complicating matters further, Hazard and his team discover, after a tour of some of some of the clubs and hang-outs of the cities’ black community, that Sapphire’s light skin made her a tough sell among black people almost as much as white. Her family, as well, was turns out to have been thoroughly disapproving of her impending marriage to a white boy. The younger people in the film tend to be more accepting. Of course, the absurdity of the situation is cleverly underlined by the frequent reminders that hardly anyone knew that the girl was even black. Watching people freak out when they discover that the girl that they knew and loved was in fact, technically, black, makes a point. It’s not a particularly subtle point, particularly to a viewer 50 years later, but this was a gutsy picture for the time. Though it won the BAFTA for best picture of its year, reaction was definitely and expectedly mixed (even so, the film was a critical success and did well enough at the box office that Dearden was able to continue on an independent path. The U.S. was beginning to dip its toes into themes of racial tolerance around this time, but a mixed-race unmarried couple with a baby on the way would have been too much for any major American filmmaker. The film itself is the stagiest and least theatrical of the films in this set, but the stunning London photography and the tour of the London jazz scene balances things a bit.

"I think I was right. Hate killed Sapphire." –Superintendant Hazard

The next film, The League of Gentlemen is far less politically motivated, and was proportionately more popular. With an all-star cast of British stars including a young Richard Attenborough, this is a heist film of the Ocean’s Eleven model (or, rather, Ocean’s Eleven follows the model set by this movie). Jack Hawkins plays Colonel Hyde, a disillusioned retired officer at a bit of a loss. Embittered at his forced retirement, and not really sure what to do with himself, he cons, cajoles, and blackmails a roguish contingent of former army men into joining with him on a plan to take a major British bank for a million pounds. The men are mostly scoundrels of one type or another: a gigolo, a black marketer, a drunk, etc. Indicative of the irreverent tone: when the status of Hyde’s wife is gently inquired of, he responds: “No, I regret to say the bitch is still going strong.”

Less overtly controversial than the other movies in this collection, the team does include an overtly gay (and, happily, non-stereotypical) gym owner. Despite their disreputable backgrounds, they’re all suave gentlemen on the surface, and quickly fall into a well-organized military routine in order to facilitate the multi-tiered heist plot. The needed weapons will come from a daring raid on a military outpost, and they’ll need a getaway vehicle before the bank robbery can take place. It’s all very stylish, and if rather tame by the standards of modern action films, it’s quite a bit of fun.

Next up is 1961’s Victim. At a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in the UK, Dearden and producer Michael Relph created a thoughtful and nuanced film on the threat of blackmail in the gay community. Star Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a married but closeted barrister who comes under threat from a blackmail ring whose machinations had already lead to the suicide of a young man in Farr’s orbit. The essentially loving relationship between Farr and his rather long-suffering wife Laura (Sylvia Simms) is played with great sensitivity by the two actors. Melville has never made a secret to her of his homosexuality, and the resulting complexity of their marriage is portrayed in a way that seems particularly thoughtful given that the film was released almost a half century ago.

Farr decides to take on the blackmailers, damn the consequences. Much like Sapphire, what follows has the skeleton of a police procedural as Farr teams with a sympathetic police chief in order to bring down the crime ring. Both are in difficult positions: the blackmail of closeted gays has become a major source of crime, but being gay is a crime as well. Farr is truly damned in any event: to pay the blackmailers would be to conceal a crime. To expose it will be the end of his career. Fortunately, Dearden had grown as a filmmaker in the couple of years between Sapphire and this one. Where that message of that movie is a bit more on the nose, Victim is an altogether more subtle film, with some tremendous performances that subordinate the message to the filmmaking, making the point about the absurdity of a system that criminalizes love all the more powerful. It’s the best of the films in this set, and the most moving. In 1967, homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK, and it’s easy to imagine that this major film, with its prominent star, can claim a share of the credit. Indeed, many of the debates in the film are echoed even today on US news networks. Perhaps if America had had an equivalent movie, it wouldn’t have taken us until 2003 to do what the UK did 45 years ago.

Finally comes 1962’s All Night Long, a love-letter to London’s jazz scene. It’s an Othello pastiche set in a beautifully designed music club populated by rarely filmed musicians Dave Brubeck, Johnny Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and Charles Mingus. Patrick McGoohan (aka TV’s “Number Six” of The Prisoner) plays the Iago character Johnny Cousin, who throughout a single evening jealously plots to pull apart musical duo and married couple Aurelius and Delia, on their first anniversary, no less. This one represents a departure from the other films: here, Dearden manages to be truly, if a bit self-consciously, cool. Sapphire and Victim both worked by masking radical social messages behind staid (square) police dramas. Here, the message is far less overt. No one really bats an eyelash at the biracial couple and guests of honor. It’s entirely irrelevant, actually, until Johnny uses it as part of his arsenal to drive them apart. That’s something very much like progress, and it makes for a much better movie. In all of the other films in this set, there’s plenty of often-obnoxious music direction with loud and aggressive orchestral scores. Here, the cool jazz soundtrack is a virtue that compliments the sly (and sometimes sinister) performances in this smooth drama.

Criterion’s Eclipse collection is focused on neglected films and filmmakers whose popularity wouldn’t support elaborate individual editions. Nevertheless, the gang doesn’t do shabby, and the technical quality of this set leaves little to be desired. Each film is beautifully mastered, with the two latter films, especially, looking sharp with great black and white contrast. Music, for better and worse, prominently figures in each of the films, and the mono tracks are all clear and balanced reasonably well between music and dialogue. As is standard with Eclipse, no extras are included aside from rather extensive and informative liner notes on each film by writer Michael Koresky.

All of these films, quietly speak to a world in transition. It's The League of Gentlemen, the least obviously political of the films, that drives the overarching narrative home. In 1960, a generation which had fought and lived through WWII was beginning to give way to a new one. And if the soldiers of that war felt that they deserved a bit more than what they had been dealt, what of it? They hadn't successfully put the war and the lives of soldiers behind them, nor were they ready for the swinging London to come.

Dearden’s reputation is built largely on scrupulous efficiency. To be a bit less charitable, there is a workmanlike style to his films which no doubt accounts for the sheer volume of his output (he directed 37 films over the course of a roughly 30-year career). In all of these films, Dearden and producer Relph had something to say. Occasionally, the message threatens to overwhelm the medium. A flashier, more arty director, though, could well have missed the point. For social message films, especially the ones that come at times of early upheaval, rarely is subtlety a virtue. That comes later. It’s not possible to walk away from these films (particularly Sapphire and Victim) without knowing exactly what Dearden would have wanted you to feel about racism and homophobia. That being said, his quiet style is the very antithesis of overbearing. That’s a balance that other directors might find hard to manufacture. Like Nixon in China, these scrupulous procedurals have a conservative respectability that gives their radical (for their times, certainly) messages credibility that one can imagine played well with dubious audiences. Though you can feel, watching these films, that he’d love to beat you over the head with the message, a particularly English good grace won’t allow him to do more than nudge you rather insistently. Even given some weaknesses, the four films of this collection are never less than competent and entertaining. In their own quiet ways, this neglected director may have to guide Britain through a tumultuous time into a more tolerant post-war world.

Posted by: Ross Johnson - February 11, 2011, 1:47 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: eclipse, jazz, othello, british, gay




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