Judge Daryl Loomis hopes that cinema will soon tackle the world's biggest social problem: Justin Bieber.
"We plan to show this prejudice as the stupid and illogical thing it is."—Basil Dearden during the production of Sapphire.
Even if you've never heard of the particular director Criterion highlights in their latest Eclipse series set, you know you're in for something interesting. For their twenty-fifth installment, we have Basil Dearden's London Underground. An award-winning director in his day, Dearden is all but forgotten now, but the four films in this collection, each with its own political bent, is a valuable look at England that was staring down social change.
Facts of the Case
The League of Gentlemen
All Night Long
In each film in the collection, Dearden takes a social problem and wraps it in a genre film. Doing so adds a buffer, making the stories more palatable for audiences while allowing Dearden to keep his politics up front. The results are mixed, but the more political the film, the better the results. In all cases, the acting is superb and the filmmaking is sharp, but some of the storytelling is underwhelming.
Sapphire is a fine film that is surprising in its directness. We watch the police while they investigate the crime, following trails that lead them from middle class white London into the African and Caribbean districts. No matter where they are, the issue of Sapphire's race is paramount. While the film can certainly feel heavy handed for this, the institutionalized racism makes for many possible suspects for the murder, so the investigation remains relevant and mysterious. Nigel Patrick's performance as the lead investigator is very good, displaying the right balance between sensitivity to the grieving and suspecting them of murder, and the supporting players are a convincing bunch. This is the only color film in the set and Dearden uses it to heighten the emotion. It's surely a melodrama, but a good one, sort of like if Douglas Sirk directed a movie called Guess Who Came to Dinner…and Died.
Dearden followed up Sapphire the following year with The League of Gentlemen; the film I suspect might be the most popular in the collection, no matter that it's my least favorite. Here, Dearden focuses on displaced veterans, but this film has the least overt message here. Truly, out of the context of the other films present, the political issue could be missed completely. That's both a blessing and a curse. The heist plotting is by far the most accessible, but the writing is very jokey. Everybody seems to have a jolly good time getting revenge, like teenagers pranking the school dean. There's little tension and an ending that comes out of nowhere to make sure everybody knows that crime does not pay. No, the draw here is the actors, a powerful array of British talent. Nigel Patrick is back, though in a very different role, as Colonel Hyde's boorish second-in-command, and is equally as strong. Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape) is brilliant as a weird, mousy mechanic and Roger Livesey (Lorna Doone) does well with the always classic conman disguised as a priest. Jack Hawkins leads them all as a Colonel should: he's fatherly and harsh, but with his impeccable plan, the men have no problem falling in line. It's a good film, but my least favorite in the set, mostly because the comic tone doesn't fit the subject very well.
The best and most important film in the set, Victim, also makes the boldest statement. Embarrassing as it was that laws criminalizing homosexuality still sat on British law books in 1961, attitudes had started to loosen. Victim represents this change both on screen and in the attitudes of the people involved. Dirk Bogard gives a brilliant and emotional performance. He absolutely becomes Melville Farr; the internal conflict and drive for justice come across with depth and realism. The whole cast is committed, the direction is superb, and the blackmail/revenge plot is the best in the set, but it's the attitude inherent in the story that sets it apart from even mainstream film fifty years later. Gay characters in American film, at least, were non-existent in film when Victim came out (and, for release in the States, every use of the word "homosexual" had to be removed, and it's used a lot). In Dearden's film, though, not only is the gay lifestyle present, it is condoned completely, both in word and action. The only right way is the tolerant way and the villains in the film are strictly anti-gay rights. Even today, it's disturbingly rare to see such an attitude outside of LGBT cinema. Of all the films in the collection, Victim is the true classic.
After so much politics, All Night Long seems like an odd choice to close out the set, but a retelling of Othello actually fits nicely into Dearden's philosophy. The natural racial slant from the original play makes integrated casting easy and Dearden takes an extra step and sets it in one of the rare places where integration actually existed a little: the jazz club. There are multiple interracial relationships that are completely incidental to the plot, purposely added to lend a sense of normalcy to such a controversial concept. I don't think this would have played too well in Alabama in 1962, but it's a fine adaptation of the play. The problem here is the acting. Two good performances, Attenborough as the club owner and Patrick McGoohan as the scheming Johnny Cousins, are brought down by the generally subpar work around them. Jazz greats Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck make appearances, and nobody ever doubts why they chose music over acting. Overall, though, it's a satisfying film, just not as weighty as the better films in the set.
As is the case with the entire Eclipse series, Basil Dearden's London Underground is free of extras but technically superb. For all four, the transfers are near perfect and the sound is as good as you can expect. For films seeing their first release, there's not much more one could want.
Surprises abound in Criterion's Eclipse series. They deserve all the credit in the world for exposing audiences to forgotten films that deserve to be seen and study. In this case, we have a group of films that a lot of people today could benefit from. While he didn't make the most subtle pictures in town, Basil Dearden believed in what he filmed and was direct in his views. Overtly political films don't exist much today, but after seeing these, perhaps Dearden can serve as inspiration.
Another one knocked out of the park by Criterion. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice, Sapphire
Perp Profile, Sapphire
Distinguishing Marks, Sapphire
Scales of Justice, The League Of Gentlemen
Perp Profile, The League Of Gentlemen
Distinguishing Marks, The League Of Gentlemen
Scales of Justice, Victim
Perp Profile, Victim
Distinguishing Marks, Victim
Scales of Justice, All Night Long
Perp Profile, All Night Long
Distinguishing Marks, All Night Long
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