Movies have the power to reveal the beating heart and crumbling soul of a specific community at the crossroads of change, unmasking the deafening hierarchies ruling the status quo and the moral complexities hiding under the façade of normal life. Mainstream films, often frustratingly indebted to the suffocating goal of entertainment, usually circumvent direct contact with these hidden issues in favor of subtle reference or complete disavowal. So it’s left to cinema’s risk takers and independents to unflinchingly examine the more taboo aspects of a specific society, and certain filmmaker’s flourish when pushing down hard on our cultural pressure points.
The Criterion Collection has devoted their latest Eclipse box set to such a filmmaker, British auteur Basil Dearden, whose string of daring and dashing genre films released in the late 1950s and early 1960s form a quartet entitled “London Underground,” a thematically linked series as evocative as is damning. Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, and All Night Long each provide a subversively searing focus on complex social issues normally banished behind closed doors. Racism, homosexuality, class struggles, and institutional failure directly overlap with the more conservative and sometimes bigoted points of view, constructing grassroots mosaics where tragedy and hope live on the same block. There’s directness to Dearden’s staging that feels entirely relevant some five decades later, and no matter if he’s working in noir, melodrama, or the heist genre, this frankness infuses every character-driven moment.
A police procedural with razor sharp teeth, 1959’s Sapphire begins with the body of a murdered college student literally falling into frame on a bed of dead leaves. The titular character’s lifeless eyes look back up at the camera, blood trickling out of her mouth, and we are left with an ingrained image representing the consequences of hate. As a keen police superintendent (Nigel Patrick) and his dutiful but racist lieutenant (Michael Craig) investigate the twisty case through the foggy London streets, the victim’s mixed-race background incriminates characters both black and white, sending shockwaves through the strained community that inevitably unveils hatred lurking in the most unsuspecting corners, a key motif throughout Dearden’s films. Sapphire becomes a full-fledged shock campaign on the effects of racism by culminating in a harrowing finale where the police use a character’s skin color to flush out the murderer. “I don’t want his dirty hands on my kids,” the killer suddenly screams, leaving the room gasping in silence. Dearden not only effectively uses subtle innuendo and nuance to indict moral contradictions, but also relies on confrontational assaults of dialogue to illuminate the uncomfortable truth.
Compared to the rest of the series, Dearden’s intoxicating heist film The League of Gentlemen, from 1960, has a playful tone, yet it still manages to directly address a post-WWII malaise hounding morally ambiguous soldiers who’ve lost all sense of purpose in normal society. Much like Sapphire, Dearden begins The League of Gentlemen with an iconic cinematic image: Colonel Hyde (Jack Hawkins) ascending from the depths of a manhole looking mightily suspicious. His dapper yet shady persona falls in line with the legion of disgraced “gentlemen” he recruits to conduct an audacious bank robbery, and these men form a collage of bastardized military professionals slithering on the fringes of society. Hyde engulfs his platoon of criminals with military principals and hierarchies, ingratiating them back into the structure and discipline the army affords, all to ensure the mission’s success. When asked about his role, the smooth-talking Hyde says, “I synchronize the watches,” and his criminal outfit quickly becomes a swift and motivated military machine, housing two diverging mentalities under the same roof. The pulpy dialogue (“Now you can afford to sin”), the engaging pacing (a stealthy assault on a military base is expertly crafted), and the final bit of ironic downfall (a child sleuth) all side-step hints of brutality, proving Dearden’s watershed genre film as a forefather to The Italian Job and The Lavender Hill Mob. The group of scoundrels ultimately realize the true currency in post military life is not women, money, or power, but a continuation of their shared camaraderie, and their collective shrugs of indifference in the back of a police wagon becomes a priceless and hilarious admission of fallibility.
While Dearden addresses the idea of fate, both seriously in Sapphire and almost comedically in The League of Gentlemen, there’s a striking sense of fatalism infusing his masterful 1961 drama Victim, a scathing and brutal examination of England’s rampant homophobia and problematic social codes. Dick Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a closeted lawyer victimized by an elaborate blackmail scheme targeting high profile gay men. Constructed like a detective film, Victim follows Farr’s investigation into the various catacombs of the London elite, where far-reaching compromise and repression construct a pressure cooker of emotional fear. Since homosexuality is illegal in England at the time, Farr’s stake in the vexing search for the truth is both personal and professional, giving the narrative a certain openness that connects the film with Sapphire on both a structural and thematic level. A duo of cops also provides an interesting dual perspective on the laws against homosexuality, with the elder being sympathetic and pragmatic and the younger entrenched in the more conservative majority opinion. Mostly, Victim is fascinating for its consistent attention to the complex emotions of its gay characters, men who often show an unwavering honesty in respect to their sexuality. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says nature played me a dirty trick,” one particularly conflicted character says, and this type of substantive dialogue reveals Dearden as a surveyor of progressive ideologies way ahead of the norm. Another cramped showdown between both sides of the culture isle dramatically ends Victim, and yet again Dearden’s villain is a female wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Someone had to make them pay for their filthy blasphemy,” the blackmailer hollers, yet Farr doesn’t waver, and his strength to sacrifice everything in order to promote awareness must have been revolutionary for its time.
Themes of deception, chance, and manipulation drift through the first three films, so it’s completely fitting All Night Long, Dearden’s jazz-infused adaptation of Othello from 1962, encapsulates these elements into a single location pot boiler of a melodrama. Black Jazz legend Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his white singer wife Delia Lane (Marti Stevens) arrive at their friend Rod Hamilton’s (Richard Attenborough) nightclub to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary and find a flurry of celebration and hope. But lurking in the crowd is a fellow musician named Johnny Cousin hell bent on poisoning their relationship for his own emotional and professional gain. The smoky interiors and musical interludes only add texture to the increasingly volatile atmosphere, with Dearden’s fluid camera glides through the space in long, beautiful camera moves. The fear of domestication, entrapment, interracial relationships, and happiness permeates the space, pushing Aurelius toward his inevitable breaking point. But as Michael Koresky notes his wonderful liner notes (they accompany each disc), the film doesn’t finalize the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play. Still, you can hear and feel the betrayal on every musical note and accusatory stare. Johnny slyly twists the knife deeper with each lie, and the all night party invariably comes to crashing halt. In the end, All Night Long feels like a nocturnal jam session oozing with style to spare and an epic’s worth of pain to bear.
While this indispensable box set only touches on a portion of Basil Dearden’s lengthy directing career, the “London Underground” films contain enough stylistic virtuosity and thematic weight to fill an entire filmography. Dearden’s attention to the detail of human interaction is matched only by his adherence to investigate the contradictions of modern society, and ultimately, each of these transcendent works show Dearden’s goal was simple: bring illumination, power, and resolve to groups of the population powerless against those wielding the worst impulses society has to offer. Bravery like that doesn’t come around very often, in real life or at the movies.
Criterion has done a wonderful job with the visual transfers for each film, presenting them in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Sapphire, the only color film of the bunch, contains an amazing texture that pops when flourishes of red are juxtaposed with an overall dreary, monochromatic vision of London. The booming jazz band score trumpet and drums that compliment the investigation are appropriately loud. The League of Gentlemen also looks and sounds fantastic, using harsh contrast shadows and precise sound design to bring an impending sense of fate catching up with the charming group of military misfits. Victim, overflowing with expansive establishing shots and compacting close-ups, uses space to imprison its very conflicted characters, and the sheen and silence of each sequence is lovingly rendered. Finally, All Night Long and its fabulously designed interiors and prolonged music sets might be the most visually impressive film of the group. Its black-and-white visuals are balanced well, with the fluidity of Basil Dearden's camera capturing details in unexpected places. Here, atmosphere dances to a rhythm deeply connected with a specifically calibrated time and space.
As with every Criterion Eclipse set, there are no extras to supplement the films, except for the aforementioned liner notes.
British auteur Basil Dearden pulled back the veil of his society’s outcasts, dismembering crippling social stigmas by highlighting their torment, humanity, and resolve for change.