Basil Dearden’s London Underground: Eclipse Series 25
Sapphire/The League of Gentlemen/Victim/All Night Long
Directed by Basil Dearden
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 92/116/100/91 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 59.95
Release Date: January 25, 2011
Review Date: January 23, 2011
After serving his apprenticeship as assistant director on several Ealing comedies in the 1930s and early 1940s, Basil Dearden took a decidedly more serious tone when he advanced to directing his own movies in 1943. The four films included in this latest Eclipse set mark four distinctly period films featuring a London that was rapidly getting hip and swinging as the 1950s changed to the 1960s with all of the various social problems and conflicts such a change in societal mores would generate.
Sapphire – 4/5
Popular music student Sapphire Robbins (Yvonne Buckingham) is found murdered in a field, stabbed repeatedly with a jagged object, and the police headed by Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) begin an investigation of her friends and family. They uncover several surprises in their inquiries including the fact that Sapphire was a mixed race woman passing for white, that she was pregnant by her white fiancé David Harris (Paul Massie), and that her bridging the races had brought her into conflict with both prejudicial middle class whites and blacks in her orbit. One of them is the certain murderer, but fingering the real culprit proves difficult as groups close ranks and refuse to talk to the police or talk in riddles and half-truths.
Though Janet Green’s screenplay certainly doesn’t flinch from the ugly face of racial bigotry on both sides of the question (the black Britishers call her “lily skin” in disgust with her abandoning them for the white world, while the whites vary from barely concealed contempt to hypocritical support-with-caveats), Basil Dearden’s direction tends to soft pedal the social commentary to focus on the whodunit aspects of the story. And it’s a decent mystery with half a dozen viable suspects that only disappoints in the too-quick breakdown of the guilty party near the end so the film can wrap up. Otherwise, the views of London from bars to dance club night spots where jazz is played and the dancing gets dirty are intriguing, the fast cutting between faces, feet, and bodies in motion at the dance club being particularly effective. Paul Massie gives a wrenching performance as the tortured fiancé, and Earl Cameron as the doctor brother of the slain woman makes a striking impression, his achievements in medicine no buffer against the prejudices he encounters around him.
The League of Gentlemen – 3.5/5
Ex-military man Hyde (Jack Hawkins) spends a year scouting the location and choosing confederates for a million pound bank heist. He chooses seven men, all former military officers who have lately stumbled on hard times and need the money that a successful robbery would bring all of them. The plan is broken down into three parts with each man on the team having specific duties in each phase based on his special area of expertise while in the military. As usual with such intricately planned maneuvers, things don’t always go according to schedule.
For caper movies such as this to be completely successful, the writer and director must make sure that the participants are interesting and accessible people, that the caper’s methodology seems complex enough for difficulty but imminently doable, and that the execution of the plan is shown clearly and cleanly and problems and their solutions aptly pictured. In this film, director Dearden and writer Bryan Forbes (who adapts John Boland’s novel and co-stars as the charm boy Porthill) manage everything but the first part. We don’t really know nearly enough about the eight men on the team, nor do we get more pertinent personal information about them as the story progresses. The rooting interest that we have with them, as opposed to the men in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle or Jules Dassin’s supreme caper film Rififi, just isn’t there to the same extent. Perhaps the cast is too large or that some of the men are too unsympathetic to draw our interest. Still, it’s the only really disappointing aspect of an otherwise fun heist picture though the place where someone in the group makes a costly mistake is focused on a bit too strongly and gives the whole game away too early. Jack Hawkins makes a fine commander of the operation, and Nigel Patrick is right there with him as his second-in-command. Of the others, Richard Attenborough as the electronics expert and Roger Livesey as a con man-turned-clergyman are standouts.
Victim – 4.5/5
When blackmail victim Barrett (Peter McEnery) commits suicide rather than reveal the nature of his homosexual relationship with bisexual barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), Farr springs into action trying to find another homosexual blackmail victim who will assist the police in tracking down the blackmailers. Being involved in this manhunt disrupts his pleasant life with wife Laura (Sylvia Syms) who knew of her husband’s past but didn’t worry about his faithfulness until a photo of the two men together comes to her attention. A number of gay men are current targets of the mysterious blackmailer including a stage star (Dennis Price), a member of the House of Lords (Anthony Nicholls), a bookshop owner (Norman Bird), and a luxury car salesman (Nigel Stock), but all are reluctant to come forward risking their careers since at the time, homosexuality was a criminal offense in England.
By far the best film in this collection, Victim succeeds as both a startling social treatise on an outdated law (which wasn’t struck down until 1967, six years after the film premiered) and an effective whodunit, the identity of the mysterious blackmailer a genuine surprise very few could possibly have guessed, especially since husband and wife writing team Janet Green and John McCormick plant superb red herrings throughout the movie to lead us astray. The writers weave fascinating information through their narrative without calling undue attention to it (90% of blackmail cases at the time involved the gay community, for example), and director Dearden approaches the story sympathetically without compromising the dramatic nature of the material. As he did in Sapphire, Dearden pictures a cross section of middle class Londoners who have their own various ways of looking at the issues of criminalized homosexuality without overdone melodrama. Dirk Bogarde, himself a closeted gay actor, gives one of his greatest performances as the driven Farr, and Sylvia Syms as his confused wife retains sympathy to the end. Donald Churchill is the film’s unsung hero in the unheralded role of Barrett’s best friend Eddy while Dennis Price, Nigel Stock, and especially Norman Bird enact very well gay men in various states of panic over their possible exposure.
All Night Long – 4/5
Jazz drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) has always dreamed of having his own modern jazz orchestra, but entrepreneur Lou Berger (Bernard Braden) won’t finance the operation unless Johnny lands a first rate female singer. He knows that former great Delia Lane (Marti Stevens) could be his ticket to the big time, but she retired from performing when she married big band leader Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris). In order to get her, Johnny orchestrates a fake love triangle between Rex, Delia and Rex’s road manager Cass Michaels (Keith Michell) hoping Rex’s insane jealousy will break the loving couple up, and he puts his plan into motion at Rex and Delia’s first anniversary party.
Yes, it’s Othello set in a jazz milieu complete with McGoohan playing the Iago role, Harris as the Moor, and Stevens as Desdemona with Michell as the naïve and unsuspecting Cassio. It works beautifully as the plan falls into place as perfectly as it possibly could have while great jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck and John Dankworth riff like crazy on the soundtrack (and play cameo roles in the movie). While Michell must fake playing tenor sax, McGoohan does a couple of truly impressive sets on the drums which are eye-opening. He and Michell out-act the leading players Harris and Stevens without much effort, and other actors like Betsy Blair and Maria Velasco are even weaker as women standing by their men. But the milieu of the anniversary party is a sight rich in racial and ethnic diversity, surely a sign that the times were indeed changing and that movies would never look quite the way they had in previous decades.
Sapphire – 3.5/5
The film is framed at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Color appears a bit drab and lifeless in the transfer though clarity can be very good most of the time. (A few scenes in lower light levels tend to up the grain quotient and make the color look chalky and unnatural.) There are a few random dirt specks, and there are some minor scratches that appear infrequently. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The League of Gentlemen – 4/5
The film is framed at its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The grayscale for this monochrome feature is beautifully executed with only irregular black levels that bring the quality down a notch. There are occasional blips of dirt and some minor scratches, but the level of detail in the image is so impressive that these momentary artifacts don’t really matter much. The movie has been divided into 10 chapters.
Victim – 4/5
The film is framed at 1.66:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Some of the location filming is a bit soft, but all of the studio work seems very sharp and solid with excellent contrast giving the grayscale an impressive sheen. There are the occasional specks and a few random scratches and some spotting, but nothing that mars the image quality for very long. The movie has been divided into 14 chapters.
All Night Long – 3.5/5
The 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered with anamorphic enhancement. While image clarity is very good for the most part, the blacks are the weakest of the three monochrome movies, and there are the occasional scratch and bits of debris that turn up from time to time. The movie has been divided into 11 chapters.
Sapphire – 4/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is very typical for its era mixing dialogue, music, and sound effects into the single track, but it’s effective nonetheless and lacks any artifacts that would betray its age like hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter.
The League of Gentlemen – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 sound track has a soft amount of hum turn up from time to time, and the ADR dialogue is sometimes recorded at a lower volume level that the direct recording resulting in some inconsistent sound levels. The track sounds a bit dry, too, and not as open as other films in this set. A sequence where sibilant speaking produces a definite hiss is annoyingly noticeable, but it only lasts a few minutes.
Victim – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack is a bit more solid in timbre than the previous film, but there is also more prominent hiss and some faint crackle from time to time. The dialogue, however, seems better recorded and is never at a volume that’s too soft to be discerned.
All Night Long – 3/5
The soundtrack is delivered in low bitrate Dolby Digital 1.0, but the music still has decent resonance with just a hint of distortion at the highest volume. More problematic is the low level of hiss which is ever-present, and there is a little flutter and some quiet crackle that can be heard on occasion as well.
The Eclipse series does not sport bonus features but there are interesting liner notes by Michael Koresky included within each of the four slim cases in the set.
4/5 (not an average)
The films contained in Basil Dearden’s London Underground are all very interesting and entertaining pictures capturing a time and place in London that gives each of them an added amount of fascination in retrospect. While Eclipse titles don’t feature remastered video or audio, the images and sound are solid enough to recommend the set without hesitation.