“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).
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.