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Jim Roots wrote:Basil Dearden had a long, interesting, and variegated career in the movies as a producer, scriptwriter, and mostly a director. He started at Ealing and worked on a couple of Will Hay comedies, shifted over to drama and suspense films, teamed up with Michael Relph to make Stanley Kramer-ish “social problem” films, continued with both the comedies and the suspense efforts, and eventually ended up making Hollywood semi-blockbusters like Khartoum, Only When I Larf, and The Assassination Bureau.
Criterion has laudably rescued Dearden’s social problem period by bringing out a four-pack under its Eclipse series brand. Made between 1959 and 1962, this is a very intriguing set from a director not widely known in our day and not deeply respected in his own day.
It is inevitable that Sapphire (1959) gets compared to Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), but note the dates: Dearden beat Kramer to the interracial-romance punch by almost a decade. A “coloured” beauty who passes for “white” gets murdered, and the prime suspects are the family whose son was planning to marry her. Adding to the mix is her brother, who turns out to be as black as can be; like Sidney Poitier’s character in Kramer’s film, he’s an accomplished and impeccably dressed medical doctor working for poor communities and being a perfect gentleman and “a credit to his race”. (Have you heard that expression used lately?) You tell me which director is stealing from which.
The characters are almost all really well-drawn and acted effectively. It’s done mostly as a police procedural, with Nigel Patrick playing the type of stolid, trenchcoat-and-hat-wearing English police detective that we’re still seeing today in many a BBC TV series. A solid film.
The League of Gentlemen (1960) must not be confused with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a wretched 2003 miasma that has no relation at all to the earlier film. Jack Hawkins handpicks a collection of his fellow disaffected WW2 veterans to apply their military training towards the theft of an enormous pile of money from a bank. Richard Attenborough shows up as one of the lot; Nigel Patrick puts in another appearance as well. Some of the others are unlikely physical specimens for the job, being either too old or too doughy to be credible, but the actors put a brave face on it.
There’s a slight stretching of credulity, too, in the kind of semi-blackmail utilized by Hawkins to force these men to accept his invitation to participate. They are all saddled with a black mark on their military records; that this would be an effective hold on them – especially when a few of them are already known petty criminals – is rather far-fetched.
The plans are executed successfully in an engrossing style, with the inevitable out-of-left-field tiny error tripping them up in the end (I’m not really spoiling it for you: you know they’re not going to get away with it).
A notable cameo appearance is made by Oliver Reed as a very camp gay dancer, which segues this review neatly into the third film, Victim, a 1961 expose of the insanity of the anti-homosexual laws that stayed in force in England until the late Sixties. Dirk Bogarde, then huge due to the popularity of the Doctor series of comedies, put his career on the line to portray a successful lawyer who leads a double life and finds himself enmeshed by a wide-ranging blackmailer.
There is a genuine mystery as to who the blackmailer is, and this mystery contributes nicely to the main tension, which is whether Bogarde will sacrifice everything he has worked for in order to break the predators. Well-done and recommended.
Last in the set is All Night Long (1962), an updating of the Othello story to a community of jazz aficionados. This is the only disappointing film in the set. The story is tedious and its development is unconvincing as well as uninteresting. Why adapt a play about interracial marriage into a modern environment where interracial relations are treated as being so normal that no one even mentions it in the movie? And doesn’t it further undermine the play’s point when the cat’s-paw of the Iago character is a white man who is himself preparing to marry a black woman?
Unless you get a kick out of seeing Attenborough playing a rich but curiously asexual jazz enthusiast – and some will – there are only two reasons for watching.
One is the ever-popular Patrick McGoohan in the Iago role. He displays some surprising flair as a drummer. The other reason is the equally surprising appearances of a couple of genuine jazz superstars in their prime: Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus. Tubby Evans and “Johnny” (as he was then labelled) Dankworth also have notable turns. There is a lot of good jazz played throughout, yet Dearden doesn’t want us to overlook the tepid storyline; he keeps cutting away from the musicians to the six or eight major characters going through their motions.
Dearden loved to start off these films with a bang. Most effective is the start to Sapphire, in which the dead body of the title character is whomped down from out of nowhere upon the pile of leaves that the camera had been lovingly fixed upon. The baffling opening of League of Gentlemen – Hawkins, in a tux, emerges from a sewer grate and sneaks over to his own parked car – is never explained; presumably we’re supposed to guess that he’s so bored by his non-military life that he indulges in fantasy covert night patrols just to stay sharp. It certainly grabs our attention. Victim jumps off with Peter McEnery high up on a construction site, spotting a police car pulling up below him, and immediately fleeing in desperation. Attenborough launches All Night Long by driving up to a warehouse loft in his tux and finding Mingus practicing his double bass inside. Mingus is not wearing a tux.
Dearden treats the social problems of racism, homophobia, social anomy, and disaffection with impressive good taste and intelligence and sensitivity. Victim and Sapphire both have to pause for the station identification of explaining that “coloured” people and “inverts” are real human beings too, and that they “can’t help being what they are” – lectures that make a modern audience roll their eyes, but lectures that were fresh, daring, controversial, and very much needed in their own era. They never quite reach the self-sanctifying preachiness of Stanley Kramer’s moral fables.
If Dearden’s direction is seldom exciting, it does prove often that he was underappreciated for angles, movement, and lighting, and that he was an excellent director of actors. His style is smooth and understated, almost always effective.
If you, like me, had never heard of Basil Dearden before (even if, also like me, you had unknowingly watched some of his other films in the past), this set is a really worthwhile introduction.
All good films. I enjoyed them all, especially Sapphire.
http://www.amazon.com/Edward-Lorusso/e/ ... 203&sr=8-1
http://www.amazon.com/Edward-Lorusso/e/ ... 203&sr=8-1