Archive for Basil Dearden

Chart a Course for Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2015 by dcairns


Once saw the last half hour of THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) on TV and thought, That looked really good. Then forgot about it, mostly, and wasn’t even sure of the title, but when someone mentioned it in a comment here a while back, I remembered and made a mental note, and managed not to misplace it.

Basil Dearden directs, from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat of THE CRUEL SEA fame. A British WWII gunboat sees active service, but after the war is bought up and used by three former crewmembers in a smuggling operation. In a semi-supernatural story element, the ship itself rebels against this dishonourable use. Dearden was very good with low-key occultism — he did some of the best work in compendium DEAD OF NIGHT, and THE HALFWAY HOUSE is not bad. His last film, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, is quite a bit cheesier, but its hoaky yarn of Roger Moore surviving a motorway crash only to be stalked by his doppelgänger gains a bit of atmosphere when you learn that Dearden himself subsequently perished in a smash-up on the same stretch of road depicted. Heart attack at the wheel.


Here, he has a very sweet romantic couple, George Baker and Virginia McKenna, but that doesn’t last long, and then the film belongs to the blokes, with Baker lured into sin by a mephistophelean Richard Attenborough. Bill Owen, Roland Culver and Bernard Lee class up the joint.

There are many Richard Attenboroughs — you could say he was underrated, or that some of his aspects were.

Stout, dependable Dickie barely gets a look-in here, except as a front for devious doings.


We do gets suggestive flashes of Psycho Dickie, the compelling front man of BRIGHTON ROCK and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE — Fiona’s favourite Dickie. She was shocked to find how sexy his Pinkie was. The dead-eyed lizard stare is something he does extremely well.


Shitty Dickie, however, is much to the fore — the same spiv-like wide-boy foregrounded in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK, ONLY WHEN I LARF (for Dearden again). He’s awfully good at subverting his own pleasant persona. It’s often the way — actors who have a sweetness about them are always particularly loathsome when they get to play baddies. Tough guys in baddie roles are never so horrible (apart from Mitchum in CAPE FEAR). Think of Robin Williams; utterly unapologetic when cast as nasty pieces of work, but sometimes too ingratiating when playing sympathetic.

Baby Dickie, the limpid-eyed, star-child of the forties, is barely to be seen, the overlay of years having modified his Starchild face to something able to suggest a touch of the debauched.

Saint Dickie, the one who clones dinosaurs for all the children at Christmas, has not crinkled into being yet.


Since this is an Ealing film, we can assume that the ship is The Ship of England. Boats are always societal microcosms — SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) was about how, after the war, those who had taken part would share equally in the good fortune coming our way (studio head Sir Michael Balcom was part of a secret group tasked with preparing the nation for socialism). THE MAGGIE (1954) was a miniaturized Scotland, which is itself a miniaturized UK, and it’s about taking the Yanks for a ride, harmlessly, to skim a bit off their enviable wealth.

If the ship is always Britain, or the Empire, then this is Ealing’s bleakest statement about the post-war world, where the nation has sunk from self-sacrifice and daring during the war (not overly glamorized, though), to dog-eat-dog criminous capitalism. The only solution is to kill off the guilty and let the ship sink itself. Perhaps this pessimism has something to do with Balcom selling his studios to the BBC — he tried to keep the company going without a permanent base, but it inevitably fragmented and eventually submerged.

If all men were brothers would you let one marry your sister?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by dcairns


(Thanks to Theodore Sturgeon for the title, which I have stolen. This is a reprint of an article originally published at The original linking piece is HERE. I’ve kept the few original framegrabs but included more from an upgraded copy — thanks, Eclipse!)

The soundtrack of Basil Dearden’s racially-charged 1959 cop-flick SAPPHIRE, composed by Philip Green but arranged by the great Johnny Dankworth in a sleazy jazz style reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER, comments on shocking turns in the action in the traditional manner, with excited blasts at key moments. But the decisions about what is actually supposed to be shocking are pretty interesting, and convey all kinds of sublimated panic.

A young white woman is found stabbed on Hampstead Heath.

Her brother (Earl Cameron) arrives at the police station to give evidence. He is black.

BA-DAAA! The music blares out in horror. Not just at the appearance of a non-white character, but at the meaning behind this — miscegenation has occurred, at some distant time in the past, and a black girl has passed herself off as white.


Police examine the murdered girl’s clothing. Respectable outer garments, racy red undies beneath. “There’s the black under the white,” remarks racist copper Michael Craig.

Later, in her bedroom, detectives break into a locked drawer. As it opens, more voluminous red satin underwear bursts out.

BA-DAA! The music goes into a shocked paroxysm at this explosion of erotic lingerie. The police try to figure out how to trace the panties to their source (for no obvious reason, they are seized on as a vital clue) and the music slowly turns sexy and saxy, getting to quite like the idea of frilly knickers now that it’s over the shock.


The weird thing is, Sapphire is a progressive movie for its day, using the format of the whodunit and police procedural to look at racial attitudes across British society at a time when immigration had become a big talking point. Dearden’s VICTIM, a superior film, would use a crime story to examine British attitudes to homosexuality, and achieve a lot in terms of consciousness-raising, censorship-loosening and eventually doing its bit towards getting the law changed to decriminalise homosexual acts. Whatever Dearden’s knowledge of gay activity in Britain was, he seemed able to achieve a level of conviction that rather escapes him in SAPPHIRE. Perhaps because the presence in the cast of actors like Dennis Price and Dirk Bogarde helped set the tone. SAPPHIRE features numerous black actors, but apart from Cameron, most of them had little film experience and little acting experience of any kind. It also feels like they don’t have the authority to insist on authenticity, so that they are forced to utter weird Americanised dialogue (VICTIM’s Janet Green rewritten by DIRTY DOZEN scribe Lukas Heller). The film’s suppression of authentic West Indian accents (only a couple are heard, well into the film) also acts against a sense of a reality, although a bonus is to be had in the stereotype-defying spectacle of an exceedingly posh black barrister, with a bishop for a dad. But this character proves to be a habitué of sleazy jazz dives, drives a flash car, and has a girlfriend who talks like she’s from Harlem, so it’s uncertain if the film is hinting that his respectable facade conceals a set of inherently non-Caucasian vices.

An equally dubious moment occurs in The Tulip, where the proprietor boasts that his club’s bongo rhythms unleash a wild side in his patrons that separates the black from the white — and behind him, a curvy blonde on a bar stool starts to twitch her feet to the music, revealing her African blood.


If the film’s racial attitudes are a mixed bag Craig’s racist cop is shown to be misguided, but no alarm is expressed at the fact that he holds those opinions and that job — it may be partly because the plot is too. Dearden scored an early success with sections of the compendium horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (there’s an expressionistic side to his work that contradicts the more naturalistic flavour) and followed that with parts of TRAIN OF EVENTS, and he seems to have favoured sprawling, multi-character narratives. Here, there’s the domestic whodunnit, with its secrets and lies, different family members suspecting each other (Sapphire was engaged to a white music student, and his bigoted family opposed the match); the police procedural, with Nigel Patrick crisply efficient in a role that’s not so much underwritten as completely unwritten; and the social study, with racist landlords and London’s Afro-Caribbean night-life under examination. It’s enough for two or three better films.


About halfway in, Dearden cuts loose with a nocturnal chase, as new suspect Johnny Fiddle goes on the run through a noir city that’s all blue backlight blasting in great shafts from behind every building, A THIRD MAN kind of look that’s very typical of Dearden — he stages such chases in nearly all his thrillers. In Sapphire’s lurid Eastmancolor, the effect is more hallucinatory: the night is as searing as the day. As sequences like the climax of DEAD OF NIGHT (surreal nightmare attack) and the carnival in SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (choreographed baroque phantasmagoria) show, Dearden had a command of the expressive power of cinema that he was rarely allowed to exercise. Sapphire’s night-flight hints at a weirder, more exotic film that could have slipped into BLACK ORPHEUS territory.

By making the transition from Ealing dramas like THE BLUE LAMP (a rather gentile detective story) to ’60s social realism flicks like A PLACE TO GO (Rita Tushingham and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE wrecker Mike Sarne), Dearden showed a great deal of adaptability (he also tried his hand at Lean’s brand of epic, with KHARTOUM, and made a jazz Othello, under the title ALL NIGHT LONG, which is most notable for allowing Miles Davis and Dickie Attenborough to share screen time). POOL OF LONDON, another multi-character panoply of Britain, wrapped up in a crime thriller, made in 1951, is a more successful look at race relations. It stars the spanner-faced, fast-talking yank Bonar Colleano, and Earl Cameron again, a likeable actor in a rather neutered role: but when Cameron finally snaps under the pressure of the relentless racist attitudes around him and goes on a drunken bender, he “confirms” the prejudices of his persecutors, and it’s quite powerful stuff. The persecutors are entirely working class, however, and the film is careful to avoid suggesting that the same thoughtless inhumanity might be present among the British police. (See the film for Cameron’s drunk scene and the climax, involving Max Adrian, improbably cast as a criminal acrobat.)


Dearden is a broadly sympathetic social observer, but in SAPPHIRE he fails to convince us of the veracity of his black London. The inexperience and awkwardness of the black actors needn’t have been an insuperable problem: several players have charm and grace, but they’re saddled with unsuitable dialogue and attitudes, and unfairly contrasted with seasoned British professionals who sometimes appear stuff by comparison, but own their lines in a way most of the black actors cannot — what was needed was for them to be empowered to rephrase the dialogue into their own words.

Worst acting honours go to Paul Massie, however, as Sapphire’s white fiancée: he gives a constipated interpretation of a working class English boy with a Canadian accent. This is where the film really has no excuse for getting it wrong. And the other moment that might inspire rage is the fleeting, uncredited appearance by Barbara Steele — how one longs for the film to simply abandon its narrative and follow her sexy adventures as a music student in dawn-of-the-sixties unswinging London.


Things I Read Off the Screen in “Victim”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2015 by dcairns


The first time I wrote a piece about “things I read off the screen” it was about SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It was a film which recreated vividly a lost world of Walpamur Liquid and other strange, esoteric substances, Basil Dearden’s VICTIM, a heroic movie to have made, one which helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales (Scotland had to wait until, if you can believe it, 1980. Not a typo. 1980.) is set in a similar world. Both films give little typographical glimpses of what was playing in West End theatres at the time. They show a grey, dithering England, drizzled on and antsy.

The Dearden film is script by Janet Green and her husband John McCormack, a team who also wrote John Ford’s SEVEN WOMEN, his last movie and theirs too.

Of course it stars Dirk Bogarde, and was a fantastically courageous thing for him to have undertaken at the time. But then, he was sick of the pap the Rank Organisation had made him appear in, and wanted to make a decisive break. Some of those movies are not so bad, and some are bad but fun, but he had his sights set on higher things. Perhaps he thought that playing a character with homosexual impulses would be like hiding in plain sight — everyone would assume he must be straight, since otherwise the risk would be too great. But I suspect mainly he welcomed the opportunity to draw attention to a bad law which was destroying people’s lives — which could potentially destroy his.



Every public phone in this film — and there are many — comes with its own officious warning.



Motor Books??? Lionel Bart’s musical OLIVER!, later a Carol Reed film, is featured so prominently in this film it creeps into the dialogue, with the senior detective lamenting that a policeman’s lot would be happier if he only had to deal with Bill Sykes types. The implication is that there are those who are true criminals and those who are victims of the law. The pairing of coppers — one enlightened, one bigoted, is exactly the same as in the team’s earlier SAPPHIRE, which dealt with race. It’s a slightly obvious way of shoehorning in a debate about the issues, and subtly prompting the viewer towards a more mature view of the subject. Exactly the kind of thing Stanley Kramer gets knocked for.


OUT. While the expression “out of the closet” certainly existed in Britain at this time — you can hear it used in REPULSION, for instance — it’s not clear that the single word “out” by itself had any homosexual implication. I think the filmmakers have been careful to avoid flagrant double-entendres creeping into their signage, which is why this film is less cluttered with verbiage than many other urban movies of the era. So this is a case of a sign reaching for additional significance in a prophetic manner.



CAFÉ. Lovely chiaroscuro shot displaying Dearden’s noir style, displayed in a number of his films at this time. The earlier SAPPHIRE achieves gorgeous effects like this but in colour. Overall it seems to me slightly less successful at steering a path between the various misconceptions about its subject matter. Both films are flawed in ways that are not to do with insensitivity so much as incomplete understanding, and also censorship.

Part of the sign being occluded means that it actually says CAFF, which is how English people would pronounce it anyway, accent grave be damned.


MELVILLE FARR SHOCKS COURT. SHOOTING PARTY. And the rather vague MELVILLE FARR AWARDS PRIZE. From the scrapbook kept by Peter McEnery’s character, devoted to Dirk Bogarde’s. Bogarde/Farr explains this as “hero worship,” as if young men hero-worshipping barristers was a recognized thing. Making Farr a showbiz personality might have rendered this more plausible, and intensifed the blackmail angle, but would be too on-the-nose and too close for comfort.

Instead, Dennis Price, who had already been outed by an arrest for soliciting, plays the film’s token theatrical, part of a group of co-operative blackmailees who are presented by the movie as something of a sinister cabal. We’re encouraged to feel sympathy for Bogarde, but Bogarde is sort-of “innocent.” In areas like this, the film’s footwork is so fancy it can be hard to know if it’s progressive or reactionary. The answer has to be that it’s progressive just by virtue of the fact that it exists.

IIRC, Bogarde wrote in one of his autobiographies that in Price the film contained one actual homosexual. It also has Hilton Edwards (producer and partner to Michaeal MacLiammoir). Of course, Bogarde is excluding himself, as he always did. When the gay BBC presenter Russell Harty quizzed him on his private life, Bogarde responded with a virtual non-denial denial: “I’m still in the shell and you haven’t cracked it yet, honey!” A refusal to confirm, couched in the campest possible terms.


GENTLE HAIRDRE. The film’s inclusion of stereotypes like gay hairdressers is forgivable, it seems to me. There WERE gay hairdressers. The IMDB says of actor Charles Lloyd Pack that he “invariably played Church of England ministers.” Not QUITE invariably. It is an odd feature of clerical life that the qualities required in an actor to play a camp hairdresser are exactly those also required to play a Church of England minister.




HENRY’S. A. PALA. GEL & SON. Don’t know what it means.

The first entrance of the actual blackmailer who, like the Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD and the antagonists of KILL BABY KILL and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE, becomes a de facto serial killer without laying a finger on anyone. This is Derren Nesbitt, who was always on TV when I was growing up, and always in the most dismal things. He’s electrifying here. His wallpaper looks like pieces of correspondence with all the words redacted, and he has a punchbag and a framed print of Michelangelo’s David. Phys Ed and Art, the two suspect subjects. This wraparound ponce in his motorcycle jacket, exuding piss-elegant smarm and leering bullyboy malevolence, is in a very strange partnership with a latter-day puritan who believes in punishing “wrongdoers.” Though his partner’s sincerity in this quest is thrown into question by Nesbitt’s every mannerism. The character is listed in the credits as “Sandy Youth.”



An old theatre playbill provides gnomic hints. The letter must refer to the blackmail notes circulating throughout the narrative. Telephone calls are consistently ineffective in this film, plus you get shouted at by signs: NO PHONE CALLS AFTER 10PM; THIS TELEPHONE IS FOR THE USE OF OUR CUSTOMERS; PLEASE BE AS BRIEF AS POSSIBLE. But letters are effective. Letters make thing happen. A gratuitous subplot involves a fraud ring, operating in parallel with the blackmail, also utilising the postal system. “Words ARE important,” as Peter O’Toole teaches us in THE LAST EMPEROR. When Farr’s garage door is defaced (see top), his brother-in-law somehow knows it’s not the work of “hooligans” because it’s “too explicit.”


There’s more to this film than the writing on the wall. The gay bachelor flat Bogarde must visit (where he indulges in a bit of gay-bashing himself, slugging the rather frail Peter Copley on the jaw) is decorated in prints of lush foliage. In the stunning shot above, bare autumn trees visible through his front window surround him, creeping in, like cracks in a facade (or like the lines the makeup artist has darkened in his face to make him look older, to make it clear this is Dirk Bogarde playing a character).

Sylvia Sims, who today is a marvelous old bag, has spoken of the boredom of the wife roles she was usually saddled with in her glamorous youth. “Poker-up-the-arse parts,” she and Jean Simmons called them. She took this one because she recognized it was an important film. The mediocrity of her rather vapid character is scarcely felt because Dearden shoots the confrontation with Bogarde so dynamically. (“Because I WANTED HIM!” was Bogarde’s own addition to the script, which he felt was mealy-mouthed on this key point. They filmed the line without clearance from the censor and then simply fought it through.)

In the end, Farr sacrifices his career to do the right thing. He is rewarded by being allowed to keep his marriage. The suggestion is that this is a happy ending — certainly, the movie cannot be allowed to suggest that happiness for Farr lies in embracing his other instincts, which are described elsewhere as unfortunate, worthy of pity rather than censure, but in no way salutary. Is Farr gay? We tend to assume he is because of the casting, but the movie doesn’t come out and say so — he was attracted to McEnery’s “Boy” Barrett, and so stopped seeing him. This, he says, is quite different to what happened before his marriage — and incident his wife was aware of when they wed, and which he swore would never be repeated. So, in this cunning way, by repeatedly making it clear that nothing “happened” with McEnery, the filmmakers smuggle in the fact that something DID “happen” previously. And the result of all this finagling is that Farr gets to have had gay sex and doesn’t have to die. He gets off with life.

Background music from the transport cafe scene — pre-Beatles rock n roll, trying every so hard to pass for American. Kind of delightful, though.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 629 other followers