Basil Dearden’s The League of Gentlemen is almost devoid of social commentary. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a comedy heist thriller, and if it’s making note of anything otherwise it’s perhaps that the army lets its cast-offs drift aimlessly (and into a life of crime) rather than helping them out. Dearden’s 1959 film Sapphire is the opposite. Ostensibly a police thriller, the film is probably best categorized as a racial drama first.
For 1959 this is a remarkable film and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as other “social problem” films from the 50s (I’m looking at you, Stanley Kramer). Some of the nuance has faded with time, and a bit of it is on the nose, but Dearden, writers Janet Green and Lukas Heller, and lead actor Nigel Patrick (playing Superintendent Robert Hazard here) show a remarkable amount of restraint. One thing I really love about Patrick’s character is how easy it would be to have him as an indignant, righteous character. Dearden and Patrick get it just right. Patrick’s Hazard is instead a subtle man just doing his job. It’s a fantastic performance.
The main gist of Sapphire: a woman (Sapphire) is found dead. She’s a black woman passing as white. Hazard and Inspector Learoyd (Michael Craig) begin an investigation that unveils a whole lot of racism in London. It’s pretty amazing how quickly any film about racism can get the blood boiling. Some of the more obtuse characters in the film make me want to vocalize the same things that Hazard most likely holds back.
One of the early sequences of the film proves to be a pretty good example of Dearden’s visual strategy. Dearden starts by finding Hazard (what a great name) in a medium-wide shot as he enters the crime scene. Hazard nears the camera, coming into medium close-up as Dearden pans with him:
Dearden continues his pan, Hazard hits his mark, and we land in a 3-shot. That’s Learoyd in the middle:
Hazard walks past to inspect the body and the pan continues. Dearden then cuts to a low angle 3-shot:
Here’s the visual strategy: simple opening frames with a fairly mobile camera, but not one that calls attention to itself, that strives to land in a well-framed 3-shot that plays heavily on background and foreground. This is all over Sapphire. Here are a few random frames from later that demonstrate that similar ending position:
Even that last one, not exactly a 3-shot, employs the same basic idea. This is pretty different from The League of Gentlemen, which couldn’t fundamentally rely on the 3-shot largely because of how huge of a cast it employed. Here, the 3-shot seems to be appropriate (mostly: 2 investigators and one suspect; also: classic who’s caught in the middle/crossfire).
The end of the film, as with many that take the label of police procedural, mystery, or thriller, ends with a ‘gangs all here’ scene where the killer is revealed. In this case, that killer is Mildred Harris (Yvonne Mitchell), a white woman, sister of Sapphire’s boyfriend, and racist. Mildred’s character is great throughout Sapphire. She shows a really dark side and then in subsequent scenes is portrayed as a loving mother kissing her two perfect twin children goodnight.
Dearden shoots her confession in close-up with a very slow, small dolly-in:
It’s a good scene and a good performance. It should be noted that Sapphire’s brother, Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron), very clearly a black man, is also present in the room at this time. Here’s what’s interesting. Mildred concludes her confession. Where does Dearden go? Not to Robbins expressing his rage and/or relief at having found the culprit. Not to Hazard finally having got his ‘man.’ No, Dearden cuts to three reaction shots:
This is Mildred’s family, all showing the pain of hearing her confession. It’s an odd decision. The emphasis of this, by these edits, is placed so squarely on the break-up and hurt of the family, rather than on the grief of the relative. In fact, Robbins doesn’t really get his moment until we’re outside the room and Mildred has been taken away.
This is all great proof of how one cut can shift the tone. Had Dearden cut directly to Robbins things would read entirely differently. The mood of this scene would move from (somewhat bewildering) pain to either anger or abatement. Instead, we’re suddenly thrust into the midst of the family of the killer and he whose – to this point, of course – life has been most directly impacted is sort of shifted to the side.