The four films in Eclipse's new Basil Dearden set are anything but coy. Dearden, along with his producing partner Michael Relph, tackled his subjects and stories head on. His best known film "Victim" (1961) is credited (whether accurately or not, I'm not certain) as being the first British film to use the word "homosexual," shattering a screen taboo. The love that dare not speak its name was finally spoken, and what's more it turned out these homosexuals were real people capable of kindness, deceit, heroism and cowardice. In "Sapphire" (1959), a film which kicks off with a corpse being dropped to the ground, Dearden stares British racism in its pug-ugly face and socks it on its stiff upper lip.
Dearden's bluntness has its drawbacks. These two "issue" films suffer from "Crash disease" (AKA "Haggis syndrome") with characters who speak dead on the nose about their various prejudices: "I hate colored people!" and "Those homosexuals disgust me!" I paraphrase only slightly. But fortunately Dearden's straightforward approach also results in sleek, propulsive narrative structures that don't rely on as many contrivances (as Haggis' Oscar travesty) to repeatedly hammer home an already obvious point. "Sapphire" is indeed about a bi-racial woman who tries to "pass" as white, but it is also a no-nonsense police procedural (with Nigel Patrick shining as the lead homicide detective) that retains a ruthless investigative focus and proves to be a fairly rare example of a whodunit that actually makes you care about whodunit. Dearden mixed his "issues" with genre conventions to make it all go down easier.
This stripped-down design is also apparent in the other two films in the set. "The League of Gentlemen" (1960) is a classic bank heist film that walks viewers through every step of preparation, leads seamlessly into the execution of the crime, and wraps up with a brief, snappy aftermath. Though its main characters are not minority figures, they are still marginalized people. Each of the "Gentlemen" is a former military man who cannot adjust to civilian life and looks forward to applying his skills and training to a single goal-oriented project. It was not the first heist caper to tackle a crime so methodically ("Rififi") but the popularity of this point A to point B crime caper helped to pave the way for a slew of similar films on both sides of the Atlantic.
"All Night Long" (1962) is a bit more freeform in its story, as befits a film with a jazz setting, but the entire action of the film unfolds over the course of one night in an apartment/studio. Riffing on "Othello," the film takes place among the jazz cool cat set in the Mayfair section of London. Ugly American Johnny Cousins (Patrick McGoohan, practicing the State-side accent he would use in the early seasons of "Danger Man") schemes to break up a happily married couple, black jazz impresario Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife Delia (Marti Stevens). Johnny spends the night pouring poison into Rex's ear as a party rages on and a host of musicians including Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck jam in the background.
McGoohan's splendid sadsack rendition of Iago is reminiscent of Tony Curtis' unctuous Sidney Falco, and all of the films in the Dearden set benefit from strong performances by some of Britain's best leading men of the 50s and 60s. Nigel Patrick is great both as the lead in "Sapphire" and one of the primary members of the ensemble in "The League of Gentleman," a film which also finds room for Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough and Roger Livesey to strut their stuff. The standout, of course, is Dirk Bogarde's justly celebrated lead turn in "Victim" as Melville Farr, a closeted barrister who risks his marriage and his career to investigate the blackmailing of a young man who he may have been involved with. In 1961 Britain, homosexuality was still a crime (and would be until 1967) and gay men of all social strata lived in fear of being exposed. Bogarde was so charismatic he could sometimes overwhelm his roles, but here he plays Farr as a cautious, flawed man who is only forced to be a "hero" by circumstance. Step by step, he steels himself to take the biggest risk of his life, and Bogarde's precise restraint makes it thoroughly believable.
These four films depict a London broken along fault lines of race, class, and sexual orientation as it takes baby steps on its way towards the Civil Rights era. It is simultaneously a city that is very old and very new, and Dearden was willing and able to present it in ways that few viewers had ever seen before.
All four films are presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic transfers. "Sapphire" is in color, the other three in black and white. Eclipse releases aren't restored, but the quality here is still generally sound. "Sapphire" is perhaps the weakest of the lot, mostly because the color palette is a bit wan, but damage is fairly minor. Black-and-white contrast is fairly sharp for all three of the other films, though some of the darker scenes in "Victim" (such as a few in a phone booth at night) are lacking a bit in detail. "All Night Long" probably has the least detail of all the films, but it's something that's mostly noticeable if you freeze frame during camera movements.
All films are presented in Dolby Digital 1.0. There's not a lot to say about the audio design of these films. "The League of Gentleman" has a prominent score by Philip Green that sounds fairly good if a bit hollow here. Sound design is fairly straightforward overall, and the audio is clean with clearly mixed dialogue. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
As with other Eclipse releases, there are no extras except for the excellent liner notes provided on each film by Michael Koresky.
Dearden had already been a success with Ealing studios, but after Ealing's decline, he struck out with Michael Relph as an independent filmmaker. These films represent his most success efforts from this period. "Sapphire" won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film and "The League of Gentleman" was one of the box office smashes of 1960. "Victim" also received multiple nominations. "All Night Long" was less successful (and it is, in my opinion, definitely the least of the films in this set) and marked his shift to Hollywood where he had a big hit with "Khartoum" (1966) but never made anything to match his late 50s/early 60s output. Dearden died in a car accident in 1971.
As far as Eclipse sets go, this is a bit of a mixed bag. "Sapphire" is a real eye-opener, a cracking police procedural with guts, and "Victim" is as good (and as occasionally heavy-handed) as its reputation suggests. "The League of Gentleman" is a pleasant entertainment, but its meticulous planning sequences don't really add up to much, and the final crime comes off as a surprisingly messy and uninspired. "All Night Long" limps along but McGoohan is a blast and jazz fans will be absolutely thrilled to see Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck performing – a lengthy scene of Brubeck at the piano is particularly exciting.