SAPPHIRE passed with little notice in the States in 1959, but was a solid hit back home in England, a feather in the cap of director Basil Dearden. He guides a fine cast in a timely story, then considered sensationalistic, of racial hostility figuring in a murder investigation. Following on the heels of 1958’s Notting Hill anti-immigrant riots, the screenplay was done by Janet Green (The Clouded Yellow, Victim, 7 Women) with some additional dialogue from Lukas Heller (The Flight Of The Phoenix, The Dirty Dozen). Color cinematography from Harry Waxman (Swiss Family Robinson, The Wicker Man) captures less-exalted London locations to good effect.
Opening with a jolt, the story tracks Police Superintendent ‘Robert Hazard’ (Nigel Patrick, in typical smart and solid form) as he sorts through the various persons of interest in the knife murder of a young woman. Presently it’s revealed that the light-skinned ‘Sapphire Robbins’ was actually of mixed race (but considered black) passing as white, was engaged to a white man, fellow student ‘David Harris’ (Paul Massie, looking guilty), was pregnant, and had a wilder side displayed to one circle of friends and hidden to another. The equable Hazard and quicker-to-judge Inspector ‘Phil Learoyd’ (Michael Craig, of Mysterious Island) scour seamy dives frequented by shady types, and mull that Sapphire’s brother is a doctor (clearly identifiable as ‘colored’, played by Earl Cameron) and that her fiance’s working class family has trouble juggling their timelines. David’s sister ‘Mildred’ (Yvonne Mitchell) is wound too tight.
The acting’s strong, the settings and multi-faceted social milieu novel (for the day), the array of clues and suspects intriguing,the characterizations have depth. Of value as a slice of time, place and attitudes and still registering to good effect as a crime story and human drama.
Made for £140,000 (roughly £3,142,000 in 2023), it apparently grossed at least twice that much in the U.K. with a paltry $100,000 coming in from its limited U.S. run. With Bernard Miles, Olga Lindo, Gordon Heath, Harry Baird, Orlando Martins and in uncredited bits watch for Peter Vaughan, Desmond Llewelyn and Barbara Steele. 92 minutes.
* Director Basil Dearden had previously scored with Dead Of Night, The Gentle Gunman and The Ship That Died Of Shame. He’d go on to The League of Gentlemen, Victim, The Mind Benders, Woman Of Straw, Khartoum and The Assassination Bureau.
Two years after Sapphire broke some testy ground, another British film about racial division issues came with Flame In The Streets, starring John Mills. That same 1961, over the States, Sidney Poitier scored another move forward with A Raisin In The Sun. Rather than dating them, watching these films more than six decades later just heightens their sensitivity, especially since the lingering shelf-life of their problems have been given fresh impetus by new generations still at odds over tolerance. Way to go, folks. The move backwards couldn’t come at a worse time.