Great British Movies: Film Noir DVD

Terence Fisher, Charles Crichton, Jack Lee, Basil Dean, Antony Darnborough, 1937-1959

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Film Details

Directed by Terence Fisher, Charles Crichton, Jack Lee, Basil Dean, Antony Darnborough

Produced in 1937-1959

Main Language - English

Countries & Regions - British Film

MovieMail's Review

Contains Hunted (1952), So Long at the Fair (1950), 21 Days (1937), Turn the Key Softly (1953) and Sapphire (1959).

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.

Barry Forshaw on 10th October 2012
Author of 630 reviews

Film Description

Contains Hunted (1952), So Long at the Fair (1950), 21 Days (1937), Turn the Key Softly (1953) and Sapphire (1959).

Hunted stars Dirk Bogarde as hapless murderer Chris Lloyd, who takes flight from his crime with six-year-old witness Robbie (Jon Whiteley) in tow. As they head towards the Scottish border, the pair strike up a friendship of sorts and Lloyd learns that the boy has problems of his own.

'So Long at the Fair' follows the fortunes of Vicky Barton (Jean Simmons) as she attempts to locate her missing brother, Johnny (David Tomlinson), in Paris. George Hathaway (Bogarde), an acquaintance of her brother, may hold the key to her quest.

'21 Days' stars Laurence Olivier as Larry, a man who accidentally kills the ex-husband of his girlfriend, Wanda (Vivien Leigh), and appeals to his brother, Keith (Leslie Banks), for help. Keith, a young barrister on the verge of being promoted to the bench, is reluctant to get involved, but when a tramp is arrested for the crime the two brothers face a grave dilemma.

'Turn the Key Softly' stars Joan Collins, Yvonne Mitchell and Kathleen Harrison as a trio of women from different backgrounds released from prison on the same day. The three agree to meet for dinner to discuss their first day of freedom - if they can survive its temptations and avoid heading straight back to jail, of course.

'Sapphire' explores the aftermath of the murder of a fair-skinned West Indian immigrant in London. To the police, led by Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Inspector Learoyd (Michael Craig), the case seems clear cut - Sapphire must have been killed by a member of the black community. However, when Sapphire's brother (Earl Cameron) turns up at the police station and Sapphire's true ethnic roots become known, Hazard and Learoyd must face up to the racism of two communities and, quite possibly, their own.

DVD Details

Certificate: PG

Publisher: SpiritStrawberry

Format: DVD Colour

Region: 2

Released: 28th May 2012

Cat No: STW0047

DVD Extras

  • 5 discs

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