Two years before making Victim, Basil Dearden directed another ‘social issue’ film, Sapphire, about the murder of a black music student. The innovative race angle being topical at the time with the first influx of Commonwealth migrants and the Notting Hill race riots. The film provides a late 1950’s impression of racial tensions in London, in muted colour. The excellent screenplay was, once again, by Janet Green and ‘Dearden’s analysis of English prejudice is comprehensive and uncompromising’ (Murphy, 2010: 927). Whilst largely forgotten today, Sapphire was a major work of its time and went on to win the BAFTA award for Best Film in 1959.
The plot is based on a murdered student found stabbed to death on Hampstead Heath. It turns out that her name is Sapphire and although her complexion is white, she is actually black – apparently, her father was white and her mother was black. She was also three months pregnant, the father being a white student. The film then concentrates on Detective Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick – second from left in the photo above) and Detective Inspector Learoyd (Michael Craig – first left in the photo above) trying to catch the killer, in a climate of mutual black and white suspicion and prejudice.
Once again there are some striking lines:
Hazard: ‘Red taffeta under a tweed skirt.’
Learoyd: ‘Yes, that’s the black under the white all right.’
Learoyd: ‘He’s a good [black] pianist.’
Hazard: ‘Yes, and he’s lucky. He’ll be accepted for what he is.’
Learoyd: ‘What’s that?’
Hazard: ‘A good pianist.’
On a black club owner (far right in the photo above) on negroes with white skin: ‘Lily skin … You can always tell once they hear the beat of the bongo … they can’t hide that swing, no matter how fair the skin.’
The film boasts a strong cast, including Bernard Miles, Paul Massie, Olga Lindo, and Earl Cameron, with Yvonne Mitchell being nominated for Best Actress at that year’s BAFTAs.
In a film dealing, essentially, with prejudice, the last line, spoken by Det. Supt. Hazard to Det. Insp. Learoyd, sums it up: ‘We didn’t solve anything Phil. We just picked up the pieces.’ However, as Murphy correctly notes: ‘the films ‘impartiality’ leads it perilously close to condoning what it sets out to condemn.’
Murphy, R. (2010) Time Out Film Guide 2011. J. Pym (ed.) (Time Out Guides Ltd.).