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Like so many other films from the 1940s and 1950s, Sapphire is yet another piece of groundbreaking British cinema now long forgotten. A little clunky and overly reliant on stereotyping by today's standards, but still a fascinating exploration of the fears and struggles inherent in a newly mixed-race society. Dearden has brought together an interesting cast here, cleverly giving matinée idol Craig a fairly unsympathetic role as a racist police officer, and being superbly served by Mitchell - her final scene is at once both compelling and distressing. Too many British cinema actors of the 40's and 50's have now been forgotten, and Mitchell is a prime example of why individual and collective reappraisals and retrospectives are long overdue.
Interesting companion piece to 1961's Flame In The Streets, then, and definitely worth catching if you can.
"Sapphire" must have caused a sensation when it was first released. It deals with racism in all forms, white against black, black against black (one of Sapphire's former boyfriends says "My father would never allow me to marry Sapphire - she is only half black!!!").
The film begins with the startling discovery of the body of a young arts student. When her brother comes down to identify the body, Sup. Hazard (Nigel Patrick) realises that Sapphire is black!!! From then on Hazard encounters racism at every turning. His partner (Michael Craig) says "these spades should be sent home to their own country". The landlady, is very protective of Sapphire but when she learns of the girl's heritage she is horrified. Sapphire's friend then gives the landlady a piece of her mind but when the landlady retorts with "When you introduced Sapphire to your parents - did you tell them she was coloured" there is silence. "Well I am not the only one who is racist" - that is extremely true in this film.
Sapphire is pregnant (something else that would have shocked 50s audiences) and engaged to David (Paul Massie) whose family is a caulderon of racial tension. The mother is nice, the father (Bernard Miles) is an racist and the daughter, as a constable says "she's her father all over again". David is introverted and under the father's thumb. Yvonne Mitchell is riveting as Mildred, whose bottled up racism explodes in a scene that catches everyone by surprise (maybe not Sup. Hazard). She is married to a merchant seaman and has twin daughters, who she is very ambitious for. She is very jealous of the love she perceives Sapphire and David have for each other. Unfortunately, Sapphire is "passing for white" so the happiness is not going to last.
Mr M.Craig proved in this and the later "Life for Ruth",that he was a lot more than a lightweight second - string.He keeps a lid on his more overt racism under the more sophisticated eye of his superior(the versatile Mr N.Patrick) who moves carefully between the outraged blacks and the outraged whites,well aware of the tightrope he is walking. At the core of the film is the perceived suspicion of the whites at the myth of Black Sexuality.Hands may now be raised in horror that such stereotypical beliefs but it would be idle to deny their existence. Many years ago when I was in the Met I had ,as a partner,a very sharp and beautiful black woman.One night - one of many spent de - stressing in an East London pub - I,rather the worst I fear,for drink,pushed a fifth or sixth vodka in front of her and ventured,"Well Marlene,what do you think about The Myth of Black Sexuality?"She fixed me with a sardonic eye and said straight - faced,"What myth?". So it would appear to be a matter of embarrassment to some and pride to others . It certainly caused the unfortunate Sapphire to be murdered,and nearly half a century later,is still the cause of discomfort and suspicion between the races.The only difference in that respect between now and 1959 is that debate on the matter is not encouraged.
The film begins with the discovery of a dead woman in the park. However, this turns out to be anything but a routine case when the police investigate. First, it turns out the lady was pregnant. Second, it turns out that although she appeared quite Caucasian, she was black and posing as a white woman. While this sort of plot might seem pretty routine today, back in 1959 it was absolutely daring--and the sort of picture Hollywood NEVER would have done. I not only appreciate the daring subject matter, but also the amazingly unflinching way it approached racism. In fact, I am not even sure that they could make a movie like this today--given the bluntness of the language--but that is what makes this movie great. Racism IS horrible and the language they use make it seem horrible.
The bottom line is that the film is amazingly good. The film is free of clichés and is very well written. I also appreciate the wonderful job Nigel Patrick did in playing the chief inspector--one of the only seemingly sane people in the film! Well worth seeing and amazingly brave. It's not surprising then that the film won the BAFTA (sort of like the British version of the Oscar) for Best Picture.
I had already seen "Dead of Night"--in which Dearden directed the frame, and the first episode ("Room for just one inside, Sir!")--and had found these parts of the film nearly as impressive as the Cavalcanti (Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist tortured by his dummy...or..not?).
I got "Victim" about 2 years ago, and it's one of my favorite films.
Dearden seems singularly lacking in humor...until you realize--there's nothing really funny going on, is there? Surely, there's a VHS tape somewhere....
Sapphire takes place in the '50s - the film was released in 1959 - in England. A young woman is found dead in a park. It turns out her name is Sapphire Robbins, and she was engaged to a young man, David Harris (Paul Massie). The autopsy shows that she was three months' pregnant, and David admits that he was the father.
When Sapphire's brother (Earl Cameron) shows up, the superintendent in charge of the case (Nigel Patrick) is surprised that he's black. Sapphire was passing. The detective wonders if the Harris family knew - - and when they knew it.
David had won a scholarship and was to go off to school - could he be saddled with a wife and child? His father (Bernard Miles) is very protective of him, and his sister (Yvonne Mitchell) is somewhat abrasive.
This is the story of underlying prejudice and assumptions about black people that were pervasive at the time, particularly when this film was made. Notting Hill race riots took place in 1958. These prejudices are expressed by the inspector on the case (Michael Craig), especially the myths of black sexuality.
Dearden liked to tackle these tough subjects, which he does very well, showing it as an underlying constant. Landladies have "white" houses, black friends dropped by Sapphire when she found out she could pass seem to understand her dropping them.
The scene at the Tulips Club is the best in the film, with pulsating bongos and wild dancing. The camera veers all over the room, showing twirling skirts, legs, black people dancing with women who appear to be white. There a man tells the superintendent no matter how white a woman is, you can tell she is actually black because she can't resist the sound of the bongos.
Very strong acting throughout, particularly by stage actress Yvonne Mitchell. One thing that shows that Dearden knew what he was doing -- people's reaction to death. When the woman in the park discovers the body, she doesn't scream. And when David learns of the death of Sapphire, he seems shell-shocked and numb. Sapphire's brother seems very calm, finally breaking down and asking, "How could anyone do this?" All very realistic, all not over the top.
A must see - it is available on Netflix and on Amazon instant video.
However, where SAPPHIRE becomes something much, much more is in its context: race relations in Britain, circa 1959. It turns out that Sapphire herself was actually of mixed race, despite looking white. The discovery of her racial origins underpins the whole story and it's up to Patrick and Craig to unpin the build up to her brutal death. This is a shocking film, exploring the ugly face of racism in its matter-of-fact hatred of blacks and their creed. There's something grippingly realistic about it which makes it all the better film.
The supporting cast is very well picked. Nobody does shifty better than Paul Massie, the primary murder suspect. Earl Cameron is the model of race and refinement as the dead girl's brother. Yvonne Mitchell is superbly twitchy and Bernard Miles convincingly bigoted. Robert Adams supplies the one moment of true humour with his great cameo as Horace Big Cigar. As a film, SAPPHIRE is never less than thoroughly impressive, working well as a piece of social history as well as a fine detective story.
As police superintendent Robert Hazard, Nigel Patrick, and his sidekick inspector Phil Learoyd,Michael Craig, check out where Sapphire spent the last few hours of her life they soon realize that those of the black community in the night and dance clubs that she spent her time in knew that she was black or one of them! And her about to marry a white man, David Harris, is what may have triggered a black boyfriend of her to murder Sapphire in a jealous and violent fit. As for the devastated David Harris he seemed to know the reason why Sapphire was murdered and even more important who murdered her! But in is keeping his mouth shut he may very well ends up paying with his life, by being arrested convicted and hanged, for it!
****SPOILERS**** Down to earth and not so self conscious and apologetic of race issues, like later likewise movies about race, "Sapphire" sticks more to finding Sapphire's killer then trying to make a politically correct case out of it. There are a number of black suspects, who were anything but boy scouts or altar boys, also involved in Sappire's murder who for the most part were shown to have deep seeded racial prejudices as well. Not only against whites like David Harris and the white police but against Sapphire herself. For the "crime" of passing herself off as white and planning to marry a white man making the reason, in racial terms, for her murder cut both ways! The film didn't have the usual cop-out ending that you would have expected in Sapphire's killer being both close to home and at the same time it wasn't race that was the main reason for murdering her. But mostly for status in the community and economic freedom & security instead!
The twin threads of race and murder are skillfully woven into a difficult screenplay that nevertheless compels attention from start to finish. Credit a highly efficient performance from Nigel Patrick for holding together the disparate elements as his chief investigator works his way through London's many precincts. I like the way the screenplay portrays levels of racial dislike from both Whites and Blacks without getting too judgmental. Also, it looks like the exteriors were shot on location without any prettifying. Some of the neighborhoods in fact amount to about the last word in urban decay. Happily, director Deardon keeps things moving in unobtrusive fashion right down to the rather surprising finish. Anyway, the 90-some minutes amount to a topically compelling package that deserved its initial hoopla and still does.
The story begins when Sapphire's body is found in a park and reported to the police. As we follow London police detectives, uncovering the facts behind who the woman is and why she was killed and moved to the park, we see a myriad of action and reaction shots showing us the way people respond to her and her death since she was a black girl "passing for white." In fact, the variety of ways people—from both black and white communities--respond is almost a study in itself.
The idea of a black person "passing for white" was not new since we had seen that in the movie, Pinky (1949), and read about it in Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis. But, there are also other elements at work in this movie. How and when did she "pass for white"? How did that change the way she lived and who her friends were? When did the young white man who planned to marry her discover that she was black? When did his family discover this and what was their reaction?
This film may seem dated (even humorously campy* now), but to appreciate it, you need to think what the world was like in 1959--both in the UK and the US. This must have seemed revolutionary at a time when desegregation was illegal (in many places) and racial stereotypes were still current in our cultures. In that way, this movie is sort of a time capsule of its time. ________________
*Notice when Sapphire's brother shows up at the police station for the first time.
Listen to the jazzy film music at that point--It sounds like the punctuation mark to a Batman cartoon.
Also notice how the film refers to her "blackness coming out" whenever she danced or listened to music (with that bongo beat)!!?? What about that sexy underwear that attracts black girls? If she dresses "white" but wears lacy red underwear, does that make her outer dress "white" and her underwear " black": Is she "black" under the dress (as suggested by the assistant policeman in the movie)?
I love how the movie ends, here is part of the dialogue: X: "cases don't get solved without someone getting hurt -" X: "you know that."
Y: "We didn't solve anything Phil. We just picked up the pieces."
Written by Annuska van der Pol Canada
The film opens with the body of a white woman being found, Sapphire. Detectives Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) investigate the case. They then meet her brother who has come down from Birmingham, Dr Robbins (Earl Cameron) who is black. Hazard assumes Sapphire was his half sister. Dr Robbins tells him that one parent was white the other black. Sapphire was pale enough to pass as white, he came out as more darker. When Learoyd sees him we can tell he does not like black people.
Sapphire's boyfriend David Harris (Paul Massie) becomes a suspect, until just before her death he and his family did not know she was coloured and it turns out she was also pregnant.
The film does not pull many punches regarding pervading prejudice of the time. Basil Dearden made a name for tackling difficult subjects, he would later make the film, 'Vicitm' that dealt with homosexuality. It is also an effective thriller although you do pick up enough clues to figure out who the killer is.
Londoners love films set in our city decades ago. Oh, look, I remember those Victorian shops, those buses! There are many excellent bit players, including a couple of landladies – one who says "I run a WHITE house" while smiling crookedly. Another wears a Cairngorm brooch and says she would have thrown Sapphire out if she'd "known". The past wasn't all that cosy. Sapphire's brother says he'll stay at a certain hotel which will "take us".
The film is in colour, all the better to show off the garish underwear. There is a wonderful visit to Babette's lingerie shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. The detectives hold up a bright pink nylon negligee with some disgust.
Stereotypes fly - a girl may look white, but if she has black ancestry she can't resist the rhythm of the bongos. There are many black characters - more than in most TV dramas or films of today, and they all impress. One is a dandy with a bishop for a father. There are some dubious types hanging out in an empty house. A dimwitted suspect goes on the run through the mean streets and the film reaches another level. He's beaten up by some "teddy boys" and takes refuge in a newspaper shop run by a kindly (white) old couple.
It's about this point the watcher realises that this is no standard detective story. The acting is superlative, especially from the boyfriend's family - his worried mother, and fraught sister, whose husband is permanently "at sea".
Exteriors are drab because that's how they were. But interiors are carefully painted to look as dreary as possible - perhaps to show up snappy suits and orange lipstick. But were walls and furniture really painted in shades of brown or grey?
There's a lovely scene early on where Sapphire's student friends discuss her in Foscari's coffee bar. I wish we'd seen more of them.
Dearden created an almost documentary style murder mystery with characters that seemed more pitiful than likable and the conclusion leaves you feeling somewhat sad and depressed.
Fine performances by Bernard Miles, Earl Cameron, and Yvonne Mitchell add to the proceedings. Look for future stars Barbara Steele and Fenella Fielding in small roles.
Time hasn't less the effect that Sapphire has on the viewer. Its as relevant today as it was in 1959.