Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film music, Film Reviews

Basil Dearden’s London Underground

Basil Dearden’s London Underground” (Criterion/Eclipse)

British workhorse director Basil Dearden never established a strong cinematic personality like Michael Powell or the storytelling muscle (and powerful canvases to match) of David Lean, his two most distinctive contemporaries in the British film industry. But in a career of nearly 40 feature films (plus TV and contributions to a pair of anthology movies), Dearden proved himself a reliable craftsman in films like Dead of Night (1945, the horror anthology film to which he contributed two sequences), The Captive Heart (1946) and The League of Gentleman (1960, included in this set).

Up from the London Underground in "The League of Gentlemen"

The four features in the handsome box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground from the Eclipse imprint of Criterion display talents rare enough in any industry: intelligence, craft, ambition, professionalism and the ability to rise to the challenge of his material with a compassionate portrait of his characters. There’s a tastefulness and a restraint that keeps a lid on the emotional pressure cooker of the repressed and repressive worlds he peeks in on, which only makes him seem all the more distinctly British.

Sapphire (1959), the earliest film in the set, is also the most awkward, a somewhat arch murder mystery that traces the killing of a beautiful young woman on Hampstead Heath into the culture of segregation and racial prejudice in late fifties London. This well-liked student with a wild side (her secret wardrobe bursts with the exploding colors of party dresses and dancing outfits, a sharp contrast to the muted, overcast shades of everyday dress) turns out to be a “lily skin,” a light-toned colored girl who was “passing” in white society (including her own whites-only boarding house). And yes, the bigotry just pours out when the these facts are revealed, even in the junior police detective (Michael Craig) who proclaims that they should just “ship them all back.” The cooler, more compassionate Superintendent (Nigel Patrick) offers the voice tolerance and understanding next to his hotheaded partner while the racial tensions immediately cast a pall over every room once the subject comes up.

This is Important Cinema with Socially Relevant Themes and, while surely daring in its day, comes off as insufferably patronizing and sanctimonious at times. But it’s also a policier with crisp British accents and manners and it adds a little Brit-noir flavor as its heads into the working class neighborhoods, immigrant slums and mixed-race clubs. Very little, as the joke goes, and Dearden never gets past the feeling that polite society is slumming it as the camera observes this exotic culture, but it’s still a tonic next to the conformity on screen for the balance of the picture. The only color film on the set, it’s a handsome-looking production with a jazzy score by Philip Green. And keep your eyes open in the opening scenes for young Barbara Steele as a student in a campus coffee; a couple of lines and she’s gone for good from the film, but you can’t miss those eyes.

All Night Long (1962) is chronologically the last film on the set but it makes a companion piece of sorts to Sapphire, and a strong contrast in both style and sensibility. Set over the course of a single night in a sleek jazz club carved out of a waterfront warehouse (the passion of a jazz-loving millionaire played by Richard Attenborough), it reworks Shakespeare’s “Othello” for a culture of musicians and singers and nightclub showbiz dealings. Iago here is America drummer Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), whose plan to leave the band of jazz royalty Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and led his own group pivots on signing Rex’s wife, retired singer Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), as his headliner. And that means breaking them up: planting doubts, fertilizing with liberal amounts of bullshit and watching the suspicion and mistrust and jealousy blossom (helped by a manipulated tape recording designed to seal the deal).

Paul Harris and Marti Stevens in "All Night Long"

Set against an all-night jam session (featuring the likes of Dave Brubeck, Charlie Mingus and Johnny Dankworth), Dearden sets the narrative rhythms to the music and uses fluid camerawork to keep the momentum through the limited locations. He keeps a good beat here, a major improvement over the plodding Sapphire, and directs the actors to a snappy rhythm. There’s not much subtly to the performances—Harris has little dimension as the regal, elegant Aurelius and McGoohan plays the part with a jittery overeagerness, which fits the role (a schemer so caught up in his scheme that he loses sight of everything else) and the actor (he’s just so much fun to watch like this) but telegraphs his character a little too obviously—but the elegance of the camerawork, the machinations of the plot and the fun of seeing these musicians performing onscreen keeps the film involving. And, most interestingly, the film never addresses race in the issues of the mixed couples, directly or indirectly. In sharp contrast to the middle-class insularity of Sapphire, this cosmopolitan culture thinks little of race or class. They pay attention to talent. And, of course, success.

The League of Gentlemen (1960) is a sturdy and meticulous heist film built on an appreciation of teamwork, camaraderie and hard work: a professional work about professionals working. That’s the foundation of many a classic heist or men-on-a-mission thriller and this film offers it as a kind of skewed redemption for a misfit band of former military men, most of them drummed out for conduct unbecoming (you know, petty schemes and such), many of them fallen into cons and criminal schemes and all of them adrift in the post-war culture. Jack Hawkins is the merry ringmaster who pulls the circus together: his Mr. Hyde was “made redundant” after 25 years of service (I love how the British find such mundane words for such dramatic acts as being fired) so he wants to use the skills that Her Majesty’s service has provided and put them to use in a bank robbery. And, along the way, give a little back to the army that honored his years of service by pensioning him out. The film is a slow starter, introducing the current circumstances of each of the seven hand-picked men as they receive their invitations to dinner and a proposal, and then it tosses them together into a mansion turned high-class barracks with a chain of command. Nigel Patrick plays his number two, a blasé gigolo with a sly manner and cultured front, and he slips into the new situation with surprising ease, as do the rest of the motley crew, which includes Roger Livesey as a con man peddling pornography behind a priest’s collar, Richard Attenborough as a mechanic with a sideline “fixing” slot machines and Bryan Forbes (also the screenwriter) as a piano-playing gigolo.

These men are hardly gentlemen as the film opens, no matter what fronts they put on, but through the course of their scheme they adopt a gentleman’s code of honor and loyalty that sticks to the end, thanks to the mutual respect and bonds of friendship forged through their tour of duty. All this teamwork and talent put toward a shared goal actually renews them, this hardy band of brothers with an ignoble cause. Even those moments of minor insubordination and disobedience that most films would tease out as the loose thread that ultimately unravels the whole plan are just minor infractions with no repercussions. That comes from an altogether different source. There’s nothing showy to Dearden’s four-square direction and he takes his time to appreciate each element of the plan, which is part of the fun of the film. Dearden is as patient and meticulous as these men, and he watches to the inevitable end with the same measured appreciation. Note another future star sighting: Oliver Reed as an effeminate actor who crashes their rehearsal space expecting an audition and, a few seconds, fulfills every gay stereotype that Dearden’s next film defies.

Victim (1961) is arguably the class act of the set and the most well-known film of the quartet, thanks to its (then) groundbreaking approach to a topic (homosexuality) that was not only considered a social deviance but was criminalized. That’s not exactly why Barrett (Peter McEnery) is running from the cops in the opening scene—he’s wanted for stealing money from his boss—but it comes down to a blackmail conspiracy targeting members of the queer community (at a time before queer had been appropriated as a term of gay pride). The dynamic between the two cops is the same as in Sapphire, the older, tolerant veteran detective who recognizes both the law and the reality of human nature (he probably read the Kinsey Report) and the younger, more emotional partner instinctively disgusted by the very idea of homosexuality, but their roles are sidelined in this film. They are not the arbiters of authority here. Dirk Bogarde is esteemed barrister Melville Farr, a heretofore peripheral figure who takes the lead after Barrett meets an early end, shamed into getting justice for the boy that his defensive distance helped doom. “I can’t help the way I am, but the law says I’m a criminal,” confesses one man to Melville as he searches for someone willing to testify against the blackmailers. “I’ve been to prison four times.” That is, by any measure, an unconscionable reality for a modern, enlightened democracy, and in many ways is what steels Melville’s mission. It would be a risky career move under normal circumstances, demanding justice for victimized gay men in a culture that treats them as pariahs, but there’s a reason Melville knows Barrett and many more in the gay community besides.

Dirk Bogarde in "Victim"

Bogarde’s Melville comes on as an upper class sophisticate with a social manner of cultivation and careful restraint and the grooming of an early metrosexual, like a mildly prissy aristocrat. You can read that as gay coding, as cinema has long used such behavioral distinctions to that purpose, but as he tracks down other victims of the blackmail scheme, we are shown a range of men, many of whom don’t fit the profile. This portrait is not only more sympathetic to homosexuality than (to the best of my knowledge) any mainstream American or British film had been to that time, it dares to show them as simply citizens: everyday men just trying to live their lives without hurting anyone and drawing undue attention to themselves. To paraphrase a line from Sapphire, you can’t tell just by looking at them, though there are reflexively hostile characters who are convinced that you can. And that reality is, in fact, what caused Melville to elude Barrett’s desperate attempts to reach him: he thought it was a shakedown. In this culture, just the appearance of interest in other men is enough to derail a life. He was wrong about the Barrett but right about the predatory danger. The flip side to this underclass is a display of homophobia from the “normal” public at its most extreme: revulsion, disgust and hatred.

Victim has its share of speechifying and the vision of Bogarde’s tortured intensity and pensive drive makes him into a tarnished saint (tarnished not by his homosexuality, mind you, but his previous inaction, which allowed an innocent to die protecting his identity). It’s also a startlingly handsome feature (cinematographer Otto Heller had a career reaching back to the golden age of the silent era and forward through films as diverse and dynamic as Olivier’s Richard III, Powell’s Peeping Tom and anti-Bond spy thrillers The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin) with a theatrical flair and a shadow of a crime thriller running through it. And credit is also due to Philip Green, the compose for all four films in the set. His score opens with the driving beat of an urban thriller and the atmosphere of anxiety and gravity echoes through the film. Maybe Dearden is trying too hard but this is a film where the elements work together quite effectively. He knew how to sell a social drama through genre trappings and in this case, he makes both of them work in the classical manner. Dearden was a far cry from the Angry Young Man cinema and kitchen sink realism of the younger generation, but he was just as contemporary in his own, classically trained way.

What’s missing from this set is the proper frame of the social context of the era. Most of these films confronted issues not discussed in polite cinema at the time and they did so with a sobriety that, in some cases, stakes out the Seriousness of these Issues. It’s not so much that they see tame or compromised or even gingerly respectful in the face of controversial material (they do), it’s simply hard to grasp just how groundbreaking some of them were for their time and culture. I’m still not sure I have an idea of who Basil Dearden the artist is, beyond his ambition and his professionalism, but I enjoyed the peek into what the darker corners of London culture on the cusp of the sixties. While I don’t know that this is really the “London Underground” of its day, these films do take us to worlds not usually seen outside of British crime movies, and rarely with such class.

For more on the set (and Victim in particular), see Melissa Anderson at Artforum and Steve Erickson at Gay City News.