Friday, April 17, 2009

Sapphire (Great Britain, 1959)

A staid but surprisingly good murder drama narrating a Scotland Yard investigation into the murder of a young, pregnant black woman who had been passing herself off as white. In fact, she is presented as a white murder victim all the way up until when her black brother first shows up, so the revelation of her racial roots is rather a surprise. There are enough suspects to keep the viewer constantly guessing, especially as the slow but steady detective work of The Yard constantly uncovers new clues.
Basil Dearden, the director, does an admirable job at presenting the obvious and not so obvious undercurrents of racism prevalent in British society at the time, taking a well defined stance against it even as he occasionally unthinkingly reinforces a variety of pretty horrendous black stereotypes at the same time (for example, the racy petticoats in Sapphire's room are seen by the detective as proof of the black blood underneath the white skin). Well acted, tightly scripted, and featuring excellent characterization and top-notch acting, Sapphire is engrossing from the start, enough so that the few flaws – due primarily to the passage of time and changing attitudes – can be overlooked. (Still, it is very hard to believe that even back in 1959, a detective would pick up, open and close a bloodied switchblade with his own bare hands before wrapping it in a protective handkerchief.)
Basil Dearden, who was killed in a car accident in 1971, had a long career in English cinema, spanning from such aged B&W classics as the anthology film Dead of Night (1945) to the highly entertaining black comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969), the latter which featured the dream cast of Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas and Curt Jurgens. As for the pale-skinned, raven-haired beauty who fleeted ever so briefly across the screen as Sapphire, Yvonne Buckingham went on to play in a few made-for-TV Edgar Wallace thrillers, Urge to Kill (1960) and The Sinister Man (1962), and the lead role as Christine Keeler in Robert B. Spaffold’s The Keeler Affair (1963), which also features Drew Barrymore’s deadbeat Dad and Highschool Confidential (1958) co-star John Barrymore Jr, before disappearing into the never-never land of never-had-beens. Don't blink, or you probably miss Barbara Steele in an early, uncredited role as a student.

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