In film school, one teacher explained the curious connection between Thomas Edison inventing the movies in New Jersey at the same time the Lumière Brothers were doing the same thing in France and William Friese-Greene in Britain by giving the mytho-poetic explanation, “There was something in the air.” He went on to state similar synchronistic occurrences of research in evolution by scholars at the same time as Darwin and the often-told story of the man who walked into the Patent Office with his telephone invention minutes after Alexander Graham Bell arrived.
Basil Dearden’s 1959 murder mystery SAPPHIRE was a film I’d been chasing down for years, almost giving up hope of ever seeing, until a few weeks ago while visiting London it turned up among the British Film Institute’s offerings at its Mediatheque. Now I return to the States and discover it has just been released on DVD as part of a boxed set, Basil Dearden’s London Underground, a collection from Criterion’s no-frills Eclipse Series.
Must be something in the air.
Sitting at a video carrel at the BFI’s Mediatheque, hastily scribbling notes while absorbing images to memory from this long-eluded work, the movie — like all good film work — hypertexted my brain into aesthetic issues and social observations that needed to be shaken up. As Eclipse’s boxed set brought into context, director Basil Dearden — working with producer Michael Relph and writer Janet Green — spearheaded the exploration of unspoken social issues in postcolonial Britain. (In this film it was the racial tensions between immigrant Blacks and working class Whites in London; the trio’s followup film to SAPPHIRE was 1961’s VICTIM, about the blackmailing of a closeted gay man.) Content aside, SAPPHIRE is also a great example of infusing color into the film noir genre.
The movie’s title character was a London art student, found dead in the first scene. The police investigation soon revealed that Sapphire was biracial and “passing” as white. She was living in a whites-only rooming house, engaged to a white student, and was expecting his child. Then one autumn morning her corpse was found with a half-dozen knife wounds around her heart. Was it a crime of passion or was her death motivated by racial hate?
The film opens on Sapphire’s freshly-murdered body being tossed onto a hillside of Hampstead Heath under the darkness of night, as scarlet titles overlay the corpse. The next day a mom and her two daughters, walking through the park’s sedated landscape of sage greens and rusts, discover the slaughtered girl. These two color schemes of scarlet/black and rust/green play off each other as motifs of Black versus White in the racial tensions that push the film along. Throughout the film, Eastman Color filmstock’s plushy palette — recalling the deeply hued textures of family slide shows from the 1950s — generated an almost abstract background of color keys that tossed the viewer back and forth though the film’s two social worlds.
As a film that addresses racism, it’s curious that the color theory could be read as a prejudicial choice. Yet the conservative/flashy dialectic in colors also says much about embedded repression in the class of the oppressors, both the White Society in the film and the possible repressed attitudes of the film’s creators. The detectives made much ado over Sapphire’s wardrobe (her conservative ‘white’ college student attire versus the flashy clothes found in her closet), especially a bright red underskirt (à la Hattie McDaniel in GONE WITH THE WIND, perhaps?), which generates an almost fetishistic fascination in the men of Scotland Yard. Most likely, in an articulation of ingrained British racism, the creators’ issues that were yet to be challenged or examined seeped through in unconscious ways onto the screen. Strong efforts were made to examine racism, yet prevailing prejudices were still in evidence in small details of the movie (just as, say, the agenda of Minnelli’s TEA AND SYMPATHY was both sympathetic to diversity while still in many respects reinforcing homophobia).
Like Gene Tierney in the early part of Preminger’s LAURA or her spiritual successor, TWIN PEAKS‘ Laura Palmer, the audience is drawn into the mystery by a single image: a photo of Sapphire dancing, with her partner’s likeness torn away. Aside from the opening shot of her corpse, this is our only view of Sapphire. The rest of the impression was collaged through interviews with “those who knew her,” displaying a spectrum of attitudes that denoted this time of social transition in British society. (Perhaps the most unsettling interrogation was of a Montessori teacher who “hated that high yellow.”)
The film was made just after the 1958 Notting Hill Riots, in which hundreds of white youth attacked the homes of West Indian residents. Onto this fresh wound, scriptwriter Janet Green — with additional help from Lucas Heller who would soon be in Hollywood scripting WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and HUSH … HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE — crafted a mystery with a message, as dense and convoluted as the ethnic tensions between the white working class and immigrating African-Caribbeans.
With its highly coded, value-centered color theory, deeply gobo’d camera setups and dramatization of attitudes in the British lower middle-class, the film was both eye-candy and brain-candy. It took me 35 years to track down this movie, but it was worth the wait.