By Matt Smith
I have watched Sapphire, British director Basil Dearden’s cool burn of a police procedural three times in as many weeks since I bought it as part of Criterion/Janus Films’ box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground. I feel like I’ve unearthed a gem that sits in not so great stature with most film critics. Made and set in London in the late 1950s, Sapphire is the story of two detectives looking for the murderer of a girl named Sapphire. The girl was black, passing for white, and was about to be married into a white family while pregnant with her fiancee’s baby. Along the way we are introduced to countless possible suspects and led into the Nigerian immigrant community of the city before returning to and discovering the true killer, which is thrilling enough, but the film and its director have other ends in mind.
What is truly remarkable and fascinating about Sapphire is the way in which, as the story progresses, it constantly peels back the layers of racial prejudices and tensions as they existed in a newly multiracial London. There are several times when the film leaves the main story altogether, focusing on the side discussions minor characters have regarding Sapphire’s race, which is totally atypical of most single-minded mystery films. A prime example of this is when the proprietor of a boarding house for students asks another girl if she knew Sapphire was colored, to which the girl replies yes and eventually threatens to leave her room because of the woman’s prejudice. But the scene doesn’t end there, continuing to the lady asking the girl if she told her parents Sapphire was black when she took her to visit them on holiday, and when the girl says she didn’t, she is told to watch who she calls prejudiced.
There’s also a terrific aside when an acquaintance of Sapphire, Slade, is questioned by the lead detective, Hazard (Nigel Patrick), and after which he goes out to his car, complaining of the detective’s sanctimonious behavior, which includes shaking hands and being courteous. All the while, Slade is shown to have a prejudice that he is simultaneously railing against Hazard having – at least as assumed by him. When asked if the detective asked about his involvement at a jazz club, he responds, “If my old man knew I’d been around places like Tulip’s, he’d cut off my allowance and yank me back home.” We are once again shown the complex nature of racial tension, the problem of assumption, and not recognizing your own prejudices when they’re staring you right in the face.
And that, too, is something interesting. It’s not enough to expose racism in all its forms, but the film must actively confront how intricately interwoven racial prejudice and preconceptions are in mainstream British society. To drive this point home, Dearden crafts the two leads, the detectives Hazard and Learoyd (Michael Craig), as a microcosm of assumptive actions and reactions, with Hazard often critiquing Learoyd for his comments regarding “colored” people. The antiquated terminology of calling someone colored aside, the point is fairly clear that Dearden and the film stand firmly on the side of undermining racial prejudices of the viewing audience both overtly and subtly.
There is one scene in particular when Hazard is puzzling over a taffeta dress Sapphire wore underneath a tweed skirt when Learoyd remarks, “That’s the black under the white alright.” All along Learoyd has made small comments like this, but here is the first time that Hazard really calls him out on it, “Come off it, Phil,” he says, in a vain attempt to curb the bullshit assumptions Learoyd constantly makes about promiscuity in regards to black people, which starts right off when we learn Sapphire was pregnant. But it doesn’t stop, it only becomes more tempered and is thrust further beneath the surface. Luckily the scab is continually ripped off and exposed as we get closer to the truth: that Sapphire was in fact a victim of racism and white hate, a mother fearing for her two young white children. We have been lead, just like the detectives, from assumptions of the guilt of the boyfriend, a white man, to that of any number of unsavory characters, to the truth, and it stings when the truth is revealed, Sapphire’s brother in the house of her would-be family-in-law and the imagined strangulation of a girl’s white doll by their mother, who just can’t take his presence – and couldn’t take Sapphire’s – any longer.
Hazard is himself an interesting character, and I’m still not sure exactly where he stands. He is certainly not portrayed as a racist, or even as having racist tendencies, though there are definitely times when ingrained thoughts start to pop through as he attempts to put the case together. I think this is fairly realistic in that we are all products of our upbringing, and no matter how we evolve into adults with fully formed opinions, there is a constant struggle to stamp out the racial and tribal mindset that we are born into, no matter our parents’ or our own best attempts otherwise. It’s a fair assessment to assume him as a cipher for the screenwriter Janet Heller and for Dearden himself, and that we are certainly meant to gleam from his sympathetic portrayal by the terrific Nigel Patrick that he at the very least means well, and only succumbs to human nature for very brief moments before returning to the only thing that makes a truly great detective: logic.
As the plot comes together, the detectives journey further into the outskirts of mainstream society, eventually making their way to a Jazz club and an interesting foot chase through the back alleys as they pursue a suspect wanted for questioning. The suspect, Johnny Fiddle, runs and runs, attempting to find help in many places that are usually insular and safe against the police, providing safe havens for people who are from the same backgrounds – something that exists in most cities with large minority cultures, but also which applies to the general population. When someone is in trouble, you help them out and ask questions later, or handle the situation yourself. But Johnny finds no haven, and eventually gets caught by the cops and questioned. During this little chase, though, he wanders into a number of situations where he is identified as an Other, and not just in the Irish pub where they call him Nigger and tell him to run along. He’s also told that it’s his kind that bring down the ire of the law on “respectable” folk by a black couple outside an apartment building, and to get lost.
Sapphire is hypnotic and works its way gradually under the skin, poking and prodding its viewers in a manner the best films always do, forcing us to question and confront our own ideologies, prejudices and the society we live in and the world we would like to create for the future. It’s also a masterful procedural, with enough twists and turns to keep viewers who don’t want to consider its many intricacies to the fullest extent interested in the whodunnit aspect of the central mystery. Basil Dearden’s first film as an independent director is well worth multiple viewings, and presents a fascinating snapshot of London’s racial identity fifty years ago.