BRITISH FILM NOIR Various directors/Strawberry Media
This is a really intriguing – if strangely assembled – collection, but a highly useful way of obtaining some hard-to-obtain British movies (such as the prison drama Turn The Key Softly and the early Terence Fisher film So Long At The Fair – though the latter is hardly a film noir). But one of the most interesting offerings here is the flawed but fascinating Sapphire.
Michael Relph and Basil Dearden produced one of their most talked-about ‘social problem’ films in 1959 with this then-controversial film. The director Basil Dearden’s films were considered to be strikingly well-made in their day and enjoyed commercial success, but the encomium is a double-edged one, rather in the fashion that the traditional ‘well-made’ play in the British theatre prior to the appearance of such writers as Harold Pinter and John Osborne was considered the gold standard, only to become regarded as fusty and outmoded – a product rightly to be swept away by the more iconoclastic new breed of playwright (ironically, such is the cyclical nature of art, many of these discarded plays are enjoying a slew of new productions and favourable reappraisals in the early 21st century).
This falling from critical grace for Dearden, who (while tackling controversial subjects) was criticised for doing so in a conventional, unadventurous fashion while less respectable directors took a more radical approach to the ‘problem’ film (similar criticism was levelled at the producer/director Stanley Kramer in the US). The criticism is, to some degree, unfair – and perhaps there’s a parallel with feminist criticism of Freud’s approach to female sexuality: Freud may have got it wrong, but at least he was prepared to talk about the subject when others wouldn’t – and, to some degree, Dearden also tackled such issues as miscegenation and homosexuality, long before such themes were accepted as part of the mainstream. The other principal criticism of Dearden concerns his perceived aesthetic limitations: that his well-made films lacked the cinematic intelligence of such unorthodox craftsmen as Seth Holt, whose all-too-brief career resulted in several truly adventurous films (discussed elsewhere in this book), mostly infused with the kind of vigour and filmic inventiveness that were not part of Dearden’s otherwise craftsmanlike professional skills. Nevertheless, leaving such reservations aside, films such as Sapphire (while of less significance today) are still fascinating as a time capsule of society’s attitudes – particularly within the context that (at the time of their releases) the Dearden films were regarded as groundbreaking and shocking.
Although Sapphire is principally about race, it is built around a classic murder investigation which allows the coppers involved to encounter something of a straw poll of attitudes and outlooks across a wide section of British society of the late 1950s. The eponymous Sapphire is a young black student (who does not appear in the film bearing her name), and her death propels a police inspector (capably played by the authoritative Nigel Patrick) into an investigation that is as much concerned with attitudes to colour as it is to sexual freedom and interracial relationships. Inevitably, white racism is a key factor here, but Relph and Dearden are sufficiently sophisticated to allow black-against-white prejudice, as represented by a black prince with a barely concealed loathing of white people. Given the relatively recent furore about so-called ‘institutional racism’ within the ranks of the British police, viewing of this piece made half a century ago demonstrates (unsurprisingly) that such illiberal attitudes were to be found in the Metropolitan officers of the day.
There is a slightly suspect conclusion drawn regarding certain racial characteristics (as demonstrated in sexually ‘abandoned’ dancers) – the sensuality of the dancing is posited as an indicator of racial background. It’s important not to be politically correct in taking the film to task for this; after all, Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern utilised similar unmistakable music-related signs for the mixed raced character Julie (passing as white) in the then-groundbreaking musical Showboat – once again, it would be facile to lament such dated notions; at least important issues were being tackled in a largely responsible fashion in a piece of popular entertainment.
In Sapphire, the attitude to miscegenation (the latter term, of course, itself contentious in the 21st century) is based around this hidden series of racial indicators (the dead woman’s liberal attitude to sexuality is something that has been kept secret from her unworldly white innamorato), and the revelation of the killer devolves on an attempt to protect someone close to Sapphire from her ‘contaminating’ influence – and if this plot development seems crass today, it nevertheless retains a vestige of moral force in an era of non-white so-called ‘honour’ killings, with the murder of young women utilised as a way of extirpating unacceptable behaviour. Such murders devolve on principally one offence, in that most incendiary of arenas: the sexual impulse.
The later racially-aggravated Brixton riots in 1981 subsequently resulted in a radical rethinking of police tactics, the film (for all its naiveté) could be subtly seen to reject the simple notion that a more liberal approach to racial issues is a panacea. Here, as in the case of the Brixton riots, a solution which addressed only white racism while ignoring certain aspects of behaviour within the black community is facile. Sapphire posits the notion that there are rarely straightforward solutions to complex issues. Not everything, in other words (and in a double sense), can be seen in simple black and white terms. Labour administrations are traditionally regarded as being more attentive to problems relating to racial tension, but Relph and Dearden suggest that whatever party is in power (Tory, Labour or Liberal), those obliged to dispense immediate solutions are the foot soldiers serving at the sharp end: the police. And the fact that this film demonstrates the inadequacy of such a response ensures that (for all its dated qualities), Sapphire remains very much a demonstration of plus ça change.
SEVEN THUNDERS Hugo Fregonese, director/Strawberry Media Hugo Fregonese is something of a cult director, but his films are difficult to track down – hence a warm welcome for this interestingly cast rarity, with Stephen Boyd top-billed in a wartime-set thriller, atmospherically shot.