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Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground

 Sapphire: Inner City

Given his strikingly eclectic body of work, it’s not surprising that Basil Dearden has never become a household name—he’s too hard to pin down. Moving effortlessly among comedies, melodramas, and thrillers, over a thirty-five-film, nearly thirty-year career, Dearden was a craftsman of durable, classic British cinema. But his artistry—in storytelling, creating atmosphere and character, and eliciting superb performances—is unmistakable, and he was always emotionally and politically attuned to the world around him. His output from the late 1950s and early 1960s is especially notable in those terms, and represents some of England’s most vital filmmaking from that time. Delving into such sensitive issues as racism, homophobia, and middle-class malaise, these films by Dearden form a portrait of London as a city on simmer, a culture primed for revolution.

Like many of his era, Dearden, born Basil Dear, entered cinema through the stage door. He changed his surname so as not to be confused with the theater impresario Basil Dean, for whom he’d begun working as an assistant production manager in 1932. That led to his filling various functions at the now legend­ary Ealing Studios after Dean became production chief there, and then to assistant director gigs under Carol Reed and Alberto Cavalcanti, among others. He made his directorial debut with 1943’s The Bells Go Down, a docudrama about East End firefighters that, though tonally and stylistically different from his later films, announced his ability to fashion drama from the realities of the day. It was also the first time he worked with Michael Relph, who would become his closest artistic ally, first as his art director and then as his producer.

Fruitful years at Ealing followed: Dearden proved his adeptness at visual storytelling with such hits as Dead of Night (1945), The Captive Heart (1946), and The Blue Lamp (1950). But after a period of prodigious success, Ealing entered a decline, and in 1956, Dearden and Relph struck out on their own. After collaborating on an Ealing-style comedy (The Smallest Show on Earth, 1957) and a juvenile delinquency picture (Violent Playground, 1958), they broke through with Sapphire (1959), a topical whodunit backed by Artna Productions. From a script by Janet Green, it was a response to the 1958 Notting Hill riots, several nights of violence against the city’s immigrant population. “We plan to show this prejudice as the stupid and illogical thing it is,” Dearden and Relph were quoted as saying during the production.

In Sapphire, two detectives investigate the murder of a college student who was of mixed race but was “passing” for white. The manhunt takes them on a tour of the city’s black communities, seldom shown cinematically before, and reveals the shocking intolerance of many in the white middle class. With its frank exposure of postcolonial ethnic tensions, Sapphire was one of the most remarkable social-problem films produced in Britain after the war. And it made waves, eliciting as many angry notices as positive ones, though it was well regarded enough to garner best British film honors at the 1959 British Academy of Film and Television Awards. If the film seems less than radical now, it’s worth noting that British cinema reverted to being exclusively white for some time afterward. Dearden had taken viewers places many had never been.


The League of Gentlemen: In Good Company

The splash that Sapphire made proved that Basil Dearden and his producing partner, Michael Relph, were on firm footing after departing Ealing Studios. Their next project, The League of Gentlemen, would have an even higher profile. The first work to come out of an exciting new partnership, Allied Film Makers, which Dearden and Relph formed with a corps of other established and up-and-coming British filmmakers, writers, and actors—including Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Guy Green, and Jack Hawkins—The League of Gentlemen became one of the top box-office hits of 1960. It was an auspicious debut for the company, established in response to the increasing difficulty of getting films financed and produced by the larger studios after the decline of theater attendance in the late 1950s, and to give creative people more artistic control.

Forbes was commissioned to write the script, based on John Boland’s popular novel, by an American producer, Carl Foreman, who approached Cary Grant and David Niven to play the leading role. When the project didn’t get off the ground in Hollywood, Dearden procured the rights to the hot property from Foreman. A lively crime escapade with melancholy undertones, this examination of the instability of a generation of British men may have appealed to Dearden and Relph’s social sensibility: the film takes place more than ten years after the end of World War II, but its main characters are veterans who have not been able to fully reintegrate into civilian life. They find the normal patterns of postwar behavior alienating—going to work, living with wives and children—and are haunted by nostalgia for the masculine community of wartime.

The film opens on an odd, comic-noir note: in the middle of a damp, echoey night, a manhole cover pops up, and out crawls our antihero, the tuxedoed, devilishly named Hyde (played by Hawkins), who proceeds to drive off calmly in a Rolls-Royce. This is no mere criminal, however. As the insistent, ironic, triumphal score by Philip Green suggests, Hyde is a former military man—and an angry one, bitter at having been made redundant by the top brass after twenty-five years of loyal service. Hyde turns his acrimony into action, rallying (through blackmail, in some cases) a troop of fellow ex-officers living in various states of disrepute. Played by a magnificent array of pillars of British cinema—including Forbes as a knavish gigolo, Roger Livesey as a con artist disguised as a clergyman, Attenborough as a meek mechanic, and Nigel Patrick as a boorish ersatz gentle­man—these seven men are enlisted to aid Hyde in an elaborate two-tiered plan. First, they will infiltrate and raid a military compound; then, they will use the purloined weapons to rob a bank. The promise of one hundred thousand pounds each is too much for the seven to resist. The rest of the film details the heist, as well as the camaraderie that arises despite the group’s neuroses and mutual distrust.

A portrait of acerbic, ambitious men banding together for some serious mischief, the film was a sly debut for the league of gentlemen who produced it. Allied Film Makers was off to a gangbusters start. Unfortunately, apart from The League of Gentlemen and Forbes’s Hayley Mills vehicle Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Allied’s films were only modest successes, and unable to turn a profit consistently, the venture resulted in a mere handful of films.


Victim: No Way Out

With its opening images of London under construction, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) announces itself as a work about a city in transition. And the film did herald change. A landmark in mainstream moviemaking, the Allied Film Makers production was one of a handful of cinematic responses to the 1957 Wolfenden Report—which recommended the legalization of homosexual acts in Great Britain, outlawed since 1885—and is indisputably the most resonant and historically important of those. Though Dearden never considered himself an activist film­maker, it was his and producer Michael Relph’s intention to contribute to a national dialogue and effect change; as Relph would later recall, “Homosexuality was something we accepted completely, and it seemed to us absolutely pre­­post­erous that the law was the way it was.” It took a decade, but the report eventually resulted in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexuality.

The film stars Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr, a successful, married, closeted barrister who discovers that a former acquaintance of his, a young gay man named Barrett (Peter McEnery), has been targeted by a mysterious blackmailer. A tragic turn of events incites Farr to action, and he risks his own livelihood by revealing his connection to Barrett and the London gay community, a number of whose members have been systematically victimized by the same criminal. The transformative power of Dearden’s film, which, like his earlier social-problem thriller Sapphire, was written by Janet Green (here alongside her husband, John McCormick), lies in the facts that its weighty melodrama is seen largely from Farr’s perspective and that the other homosexual men are portrayed just as sympathetically, as compelling victims of not only a nefarious villain but also a corrupt, repressive system.

A series of midfifties events (including the post-Kinsey-report cases of such “accused” homosexuals as John Gielgud and Lord Montagu) had made the British public increasingly receptive to the decriminalization of homosexual behavior, but this was still delicate material. And though the filmmakers got the censors involved even before production began, the film couldn’t avoid being slapped with an X rating. But that didn’t keep it from box-office success, buoyed as it was by media coverage and critical debate. Certainly, its sensitive treatment of its subject and its utilization of genre helped: Victim is both a whodunit and an intimate domestic drama (Melville’s wife, Laura, played by Sylvia Syms, is as integral and sympathetic a character as Melville himself). It wasn’t so successful in the U.S., however, where the MPAA demanded that the word homosexual be removed from the soundtrack. Dearden and Relph wouldn’t capitulate, and having lost the board’s all-important seal of approval, Victim was marginalized; according to Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet, it was “typed as a film that condoned homosexuality” and thus “shunned by the public.”

What often gets lost in discussions about the film is how elegantly crafted and profoundly felt it is (and how sharply acted, by a fully committed cast that also includes Dennis Price and Norman Bird). This isn’t just a film demanding reform; it’s an absorbing depiction of the shifting nature of society. The persecuted cross lines of class and status: lawyer, bookseller, and barber are united in a community of men who, though preyed upon, soldier on with dignity.


All Night Long: Birth of the Cool

Right after Victim, Basil Dearden and Michael Relph dived into a project that, while also socially relevant, offered a bit of a departure in terms of story, setting, and, certainly, sound­track. The script for 1962’s All Night Long—a contemporary Othello that takes place in the smoky, mod jazz scene of early sixties Mayfair—came to the filmmakers from Bob Roberts, an American producer blacklisted in the early fifties. Roberts had the rights to the screenplay, written by Nel King and Paul Jarrico (also a victim of the McCarthy-era witch hunts, and working here under the name Peter Achilles), and approached Dearden and Relph based on the success of Sapphire, which he felt was a sensitive portrayal of similarly progressive race-related content.

The machinations that surround and embroil All Night Long’s Aurelius Rex and Delia Lane are certainly less tragic than those that involve Othello and Desdemona, but Dearden spins a gripping yarn never­theless. Aurelius (Paul Harris) and Delia (Marti Stevens) are a prominent American bandleader and singer duo, celebrating their first wedding anniversary at the London home of wealthy jazz aficionado Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) with a group of hip fellow musicians and friends. (One of the most striking aspects of the film is how matter-of-factly it treats the couple’s interracialness. It’s the subject of the drama, but it is treated without much fuss by Aurelius and Delia’s peers, also racially diverse.) The happiness of the evening is cut short, however, by the twisted jealousy of drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), who devises a series of malevolent manipulations to tear the couple apart.

Relph returned to art direction for the first time in more than a decade for All Night Long. He devised an elaborate dockside warehouse set to house the film’s split-level jazz club/luxury apartment. In that space, shot with tactile, crane-assisted panache by cinematographer Ted Scaife (who would also film Dearden’s 1966 epic Khartoum), Dearden expertly lays out his atmospheric tale of betrayal, which, unlike his more expansive films that immediately preceded it, takes place in one location over the course of one night. The splashiest element, though, is the music: featured as themselves are the jazz legends Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Johnny Dankworth, and Tubby Hayes, whose many performances provide some stunning aural and visual interludes (Brubeck fans will swoon over close-ups of the pianist’s fingers tickling the ivories).

Though made and set in London, All Night Long—with its American producer, script, and cofinancing—reflected a new American sensibility that pointed to the next phase of Dearden’s career. Allied Film Makers would soon collapse, and while other British directors were making gritty angry young man dramas, Dearden went his own way, signing, along with Relph, production agreements with Hollywood companies, including United Artists and Paramount. Though the ever adaptable Dearden found success with such large-scale international coproductions as Khartoum, his work in England in the late fifties and early sixties remains this versatile, tireless artist’s claim to greatness. Dearden, who would die in a car accident in 1971, at sixty, was a genuine virtuoso of British cinema, wringing courageous, galvanizing, and entirely entertaining films from the shifting realities of the world around him.

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