Basil Dearden's London Underground (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Oliver Pattenden

Dearden's heist film, The League of Gentlemen

Dearden's heist film, The League of Gentlemen

Sapphire
Produced by Michael Relph; directed by Basil Dearden; written by Janet Green; cinematography by Harry Waxman; edited by John D. Guthridge; music by Philip Green; starring Nigel Patrick, Michael Craig, and Paul Massie. DVD, Color, 92 min., 1959.

The League of Gentlemen
Produced by Michael Relph; directed by Basil Dearden; written by Bryan Forbes; from the novel by John Boland; cinematography by Arthur Ibbetson; edited by John D. Guthridge; music by Philip Green; starring Jack Hawkins, Roger Livesey, Nigel Patrick, Richard Attenborough, and Bryan Forbes. DVD, B&W, 116 min., 1960.

Victim
Produced by Michael Relph; directed by Basil Dearden; written by Janet Green and John McCormick; cinematography by Otto Heller; edited by John D. Guthridge; music by Philip Green; starring Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Sims, Dennis Price and Nigel Stock. DVD, B&W, 100 min., 1961.

All Night Long
Produced by Michael Relph; directed by Basil Dearden; written by Nel King and Peter Achilles; cinematography by Ted Scaife; edited by John D. Guthridge; music by Philip Green; starring Paul Harris, Richard Attenborough, Patrick McGoohan and Keith Mitchell, with appearances by Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Tubby Hayes. DVD, B&W, 91 min., 1962.

A Criterion Collection Eclipse four-disc box-set, distributed by Image Entertainment.

The current fear amongst most liberals in Britain is the extreme likelihood that British Prime Minister David Cameron is dragging the nation back to the days of Thatcherism at lightning speed. While the specter of the dark days of the Eighties indeed looms with every library closure and cut to the NHS, there are also lessons to be learned by turning back the pages of recent history books to the equally difficult days of austerity in the decade and a half following World War II. The Fifties saw Britain facing new social and political concerns, and found the nation struggling to stake some identity both at home and in a changing world, while coping with financial difficulty and social unrest. There are clear parallels to the Fifties in the asceticism of the sober Britain of today and, furthermore, in the social issues challenging a conflicted and exhausted society.

Out of these difficulties of the postwar years stemmed one of the most productive and memorable eras in British cinema, so clearly characterized by the “realist” directors of the British New Wave. It is primarily owing to this movement that to this day realism and social relevance remain the pilot lights for most discourse surrounding British cinema. Basil Dearden, an alumnus of Ealing Studios with a penchant for politically motivated cinema made with meticulous production values, existed outside of the gritty and stoic esthetic that was the fashion in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Given their more overtly political themes and stylistically grandiose visuals, Dearden’s films felt in contrast to the principal esthetic of realism and are more commonly identified as “social problem” films. While Dearden’s films were often commercially and critically successful in Britain, they don’t have quite the same legacy today as the “kitchen-sink” dramas of filmmakers such as Tony Richardson or Lindsay Anderson, but they tackle much more focused and relevant political issues that were affecting the social landscape in Britain during that time.

This new box set by the Criterion Collection’s budget offshoot project Eclipse features four of Dearden’s collaborations with long-term producer Michael Relph (also of Ealing heritage), which coincide with the formation of their Allied Film Makers production company: the racial murder mystery, Sapphire; the atypically class-conscious heist film, The League of Gentlemen; the blackmail thriller, Victim; and a resetting of Shakespeare in a Sixties jazz club, All Night Long. It is easy to view this set of Dearden’s films in the context of other socially situated works of the late Fifties and early Sixties, and it seems clear that this was the frame in mind when this new set was being curated. The term “social-problem film” seems almost tailored to Dearden’s provocative exposés during this time. While Dearden may be remembered for his role as a social filmmaker, he should also be recognized as an accomplished craftsman; a director of accomplished artistry and astounding ability with the narrative conventions of cinema.

More than anything, Dearden was a consummate genre director, working with ease through myriad filmic styles and structures (probably best exemplified by the epic Khartoum[1966]). By utilizing his skills with genre films to examine society’s darkest flaws, Dearden managed to do something more than just address a social issue; he exploited the ability of cinema to entertain, placing “social problems” in a generic context that would gain more attention. For example, Sapphire and Victim (both authored by Janet Green) tackle suppressed social issues couched in forceful suspense narratives, successfully shaping the viewer’s emotional response to such topics. Similarly, League of Gentlemen conveys overlooked aspects of class and gender in the postwar era through humor and adventure, thus investing the audience with the expectations (and disappointments) of the protagonists. Because of his daringness to marry style and controversial topics, Dearden was able to remove any judgment or focused message from his films, allowing for a larger impact.

Dearden’s first cinematic work of note occurs in Ealing’s classic horror compendium Dead of Night (1945), in a vignette about an injured race-car driver confronted by a premonition of his own death. This short, anecdotal piece insouciantly recounts the story of a man who one night sees a hearse driver appear with “room for just one inside,” before later that week seeing the same man collecting tickets on a bus that soon crashes off a bridge. Like much of the film, Dearden’s sequence balances the joint pleasures of humor and terror with giddying delight. Despite being so early in his career, it’s clear from his apt handling of this succinct, mysterious narrative that Dearden’s key attribute is his deft manipulation of tone based on a firm understanding of genre conventions. The hearse driver’s immortal line is at once eerie and hilarious, and the episode is formed with a masterful approach to suspense that would later prove key to the success of his “social problem” films.

Dearden’s involvement in films focused on social issues had been established throughout the Fifties by films such as The Blue Lamp (1950) and Violent Playground (1958), though these films were far more pedantic in nature, and by the turn of the Sixties, he was demonstrating an important stylistic makeover. The plots of both The Blue Lamp and Violent Playground are centered on juvenile delinquency, and subsequently focus heavily on the social institutions involved in correction. While frequently exciting, the mystery-cum-police-propaganda film The Blue Lamp often feels stodgy, weighed down with a doctrinaire tone that feels as restrictive on the narrative as the film pleads the police to be on a delinquent society. Similarly, Violent Playground, a film about a Liverpudlian gang, becomes a paean for social workers, whose influence is deemed necessary to better the situation of frustrated teens.

By Sapphire, the focus is no longer on promoting the positive structures that are in place to protect society, rather the films are driven by exposing issues overlooked by the system. In earlier films, Dearden never shied away from plainly speaking about solutions to social issues (often in the case of voice-over prologues). In contrast, the films in this set leave open any questions of societal obligation or morality, instead offering the viewer the opportunity to experience the problems firsthand through a visceral sense of tension. While there is undoubtedly a sense of guilt at feeling narrative or cinematic pleasure by indulging in the pressure in these films, it forces us to feel the significance of the social issues at play within the stories. Dearden rarely relied on subtext or allegory, preferring to construct his films to deliver the necessary punch to spur debate on the politics behind the personal experiences he depicted.

The League of Gentlemen finds Dearden returning in spirit to his roots at Ealing, building on Ealing’s successful coupling of satire and adventure by constructing a crime plot that balances cynicism and escapade. The film depicts a recently decommissioned colonel who, feeling frustrated at his dismissal following a committed career in the army, gathers a group of skilled but shamed and mainly destitute former officers to collaborate on a large-scale bank robbery. Where League differs from other films in the “heist” genre is how clearly it foregrounds the social circumstances for the protagonists’ turn to crime. While each of the characters’ transgressions has in one way or another led to their discharge, the film makes a subtle case for the military abandoning its servants in the decade after the war. The film’s lasting image is of the plotters donning wartime gas masks to cover their identities for the bank robbery, squarely tying each of these now committed criminals to their past in service protecting the nation.

In addition to being a unique take on the heist film, League works as a great ensemble piece. So many of the key Ealing comedies, such as Hue and Cry (1947) and Passport to Pimlico (1949), were ensemble films without a key character (or, more importantly, a major star). League features several star actors (including the film’s screenwriter, Bryan Forbes), many of whom put in superb turns, particularly an understated, anxious Richard Attenborough and a sly Nigel Patrick. Where Ealing often thrived on a sense of community, the high number of standout individuals in League adds to the tension and disquiet amongst this desperate group as they attempt to put their training to use one more time. Dearden truly gets the most out of a talented cast, often revealing their individual pasts through carefully worked interactions between different members of the group.

Dearden’s ability to evoke brilliant performances is also quite evident in Victim, a courageous and edgy film that confronted the consequences of institutionalized homophobia.Victim is built on a remarkable study in paranoia and repression from Dirk Bogarde, who ushered in the second, more sinister phase of his career with this film. Bogarde’s portrayal of a closeted homosexual lawyer trapped in the middle of a blackmail scandal is made the focal point of this concentrated, claustrophobic thriller. Dearden emphasized Bogarde’s haunting and oppressive loneliness with stark and imposing camera work, making a stylistic masterpiece out of a notoriously divisive subject.

Victim, produced only a few years after the Wolfenden Report lobbied for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain, feels like a protest embedded in a taught and tense drama. Victim, in fact the first film in the English language to use the word “homosexual,” is credited with bringing the trials of those persecuted under arcane laws to the mainstream and thus influencing the revision of these laws later in the Sixties. Victim’s success in bringing attention to such a deeply marginalized social issue lies in its attention to its suspense plot.

As with Sapphire, the film for the most part eschews any punctiliousness when it comes to the moral and legal debates engendered by its subject matter. Curiously, both films allow for any moralistic arguments to be posited by police officers working on the case. In Victim it occurs in one of the film’s most enjoyable moments, as the chief inspector reminds his snidely moralistic assistant that Puritanism was once as outlawed as homosexuality. The film instead imbues the viewer with a sense of fear and discomfort that travels straight from Bogarde’s immense performance, forcing all but the most close-minded of viewers to ally with the outlawed barrister.

The earliest and latest films in this set deal (to varying degrees) with issues of immigration and race in London around the turn of the Sixties. In addition to introducing fresh cultural ideas to a changing nation, the emerging influx of immigrants from the West Indies during the mid-to-late Fifties had a significant affect on certain communities and cultures within Britain, often a disturbing reaction from the working classes (signified by the birth of such groups as the Teddy Boys). There are very few texts, however, from the era itself that deal with the tensions and the humanist problems that arose from the resistance within Britain. Sapphire skirts any specific references to racial tension in London, but is clearly an allegorical response to the Notting Hill riots of the previous year.

The film follows the investigation into the murder of a young girl, a popular student in London who is revealed to have been “passing for white.” The film doesn’t foreground any notions of racial harmony being a lost ideal; rather the topic of race is only brought in slowly, as the investigation deepens. What makes it particularly unusual, is the plot development that so few of the people who knew Sapphire knew she was of mixed race. It makes the issues of race that much more arbitrary and muddled, conveying to the viewer a genuine frustration that her race may have caused her death. While race becomes a clear possibility as a motive, Green’s screenplay cleverly skews what Sapphire’s race means to different parties, offering a range of different potential prejudices along the way. As the tension builds within the investigation and the reality that this is a hate crime is established, bigotry becomes increasingly threatening, sinister, and despicable to the viewer.

All Night Long might be the most difficult film here to classify as a landmark in its own right. The film reimagines Othello set at an exclusive all-night jazz party in a fashionably reconstituted warehouse space on the southeast bank of the Thames (hosted by a charmingly effervescent Richard Attenborough). The film is propelled by a constant stream of energetic live jazz, which features such luminaries as Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck performing on screen, but it is ultimately less immediate than the first three in this set. Despite the creative premise for the film, the screenplay somewhat lacks the spark of the other films here, though Dearden makes up for this with compellingly stylistic footage of the live performances.

The main value in including All Night Long alongside these other Dearden films is in how eloquently and subtly he handles any mention of race in the film. By seamlessly transitioning a canonized English text into a contemporary setting influenced by new immigrant cultures, Dearden makes a de facto case for celebrating and incorporating new cultural imports to Britain. Where Sapphire made clear the conflicts and tensions surrounding black culture in London, All Night Long depicts a more open-minded, inclusive version of London.

With the exception of All Night Long, each of these films openly depicts a ‘problem’ within British society, and each film addresses the flaws within the systems in place. By the Sixties, Dearden had matured from the director who felt compelled to foreground and pontificate on society’s needs in his films, opting to coerce his audience into feeling the tensions caused by prejudice and neglect. In retrospect, these films failed to have the same legacy that the class-based dramas of the British New Wave would have on the landscape of “social realism” over the decades, but there is room here to explore Dearden’s model as a productive and relevant one. While most of the issues in these films are dated now, both their stylistic success and positive response to social struggles could prove a significant influence on contemporary filmmakers looking for a rejoinder to the Britain of “The Big Society.” As Cameron sets about dismantling social institutions in Britain, from the community centers to the police and the military, there is the slight consolation of the thought that Britain tends to respond to difficult times with a fruitful spell of cinematic eminence (though this may be optimistic when considering funding, given that Mr. Cameron has already abolished the UK Film Council).

This Eclipse collection does what it promises in delivering the films in the simplest of fashions, augmented only by some insightful notes from Michael Koresky. Given the high value of these films, it’s slightly disappointing that they aren’t being presented with slightly more context, particularly given how specific their issues are to their time. The quality of the DVDs, however, is exceptionally good, and packaged together the set certainly whets the appetite for further Dearden releases in the future. The existence of this set on our shelves now is a great service to those interested in the power of cinema to convey an effective and meaningful political message. Beyond this, beneath the bold and frequently jarring social issues on display, these four diverse and pleasurable films give forth a strong case for Dearden’s work being made more available purely for its filmic mastery and visual pleasure.

Oliver Pattenden is a free-lance writer with an MA in Film Studies from the University of East Anglia.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.