Basil Dearden’s London Underground: ‘Sapphire’

Older films with few familiar faces are always exciting to watch. It makes the story the star for you, since you aren’t trying to compare the performance in this film to that film. This was exactly how it felt to watch Basil Dearden’s 1959 film Sapphire.


Sure, there are a few British character actors in the film I vaguely recognized – Bernard Miles can be spotted in Hitchcock’s second The Man Who Knew Too Much, for example – but Janet Green’s story was the star for me.

At its foundation, Sapphire is a standard police procedural, the kind of plot a film screenwriter wouldn’t dare think up today because Law & Order has already done it. But the murder concerns racism. Sapphire (Yvonne Buckingham) is murdered because she was black and she tried to pass herself off as white. Police Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick) leads the investigation and his discoveries find that she was pregnant with David Harris’ (Paul Massie) son. When did David and his family learn the truth about Sapphire? When he finds the answer, it leads to the sad truth.

Today, the film is rather pedestrian. It’s not that it’s dated – sadly, it feels even too timely – but the plot isn’t something you would expect to see in a full theatrical film. Still, you can see why Dearden and Green, along with producer Michael Relph, would have wanted to make this as a film. There’s a point here – that racism can drive even the middle class to murder – and it had to be told on the big screen and in color. It’s a drab color movie, as all U.K. color films from the ’50s seem to be, but it helps Dearden better define the differences between the worlds he is taking audiences.

Sapphire was released by Criterion in Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground on DVD in 2010.

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