When Sapphire Robbins, a beautiful young white woman, is murdered on Hamstead Heath, Detective Superintendent Robert Hazard gets the case. Sapphire, it turns out, was pregnant. The young man who was the father, the police quickly learn, had promised to marry her. He’s an architecture student with a bright future, who has just been awarded a scholarship to study abroad. His working class dad and mum and his older sister are extremely proud of him.
Then Sapphire’s older brother appears from the north to talk with the police. Soon DS Hazard (Nigel Patrick) is up to his ears in not just a mystery, but in one of Britain’s early (1959) social conscience movies. Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron) is a black man, as black as Sapphire was pink. “Our father was a doctor, white,” he says to Inspector Hazard. “Our mother was a singer, as black as I am. You never know which way it’s going to go.”
With Sapphire, Director Basil Deardon takes us on a journey into London’s tidy homes and tawdry slum flats, into shops with helpful pink clerks and basement jazz clubs with brown musicians and customers. We’re there with Hazard and Phil Learoyd, his detective inspector (Michael Craig), as they question Sapphire’s girl friends, boy friends and her landlady. Some are black, some are white. We get know the kind of people David Harris (Paul Massie), the man who got Sapphire pregnant and who fell in love with her, and his parents and sister are.
What kind of woman was Sapphire? DS Superintendent Hazard learns that she was fun to be with, an opportunist, a good friend, a false friend, something of a chatterbox, unscrupulous, a talented student at the Royal Academy of Arts, a user. Good things are said by some whites and some blacks. Bad things are said by some whites and some blacks. They all agree that when Sapphire realized one afternoon that she could pass as white, she tried to start a new life. Is this good or bad? It kind of depends on how much “white” blood it takes to be white and how much “black” blood it takes to be black. It’s apparent, without too heavy a hand, that there is enough racial prejudice to around.
“Well, we solved the case,” says Learoyd at the end.
“We didn’t solve anything,” says Hazard, “we just picked up the pieces.”
What keeps Sapphire the movie from being just another dull slog through a director’s good intentions are three things, in no particular order.
First, the point of the movie – that racial prejudice comes from fear, ignorance, experience and custom – is handled more-or-less matter of factly. This viewer, at least, didn’t feel as if he were sitting through one more dull lecture on how awful things are. There’s sly, underplayed, sardonic humor to enjoy as well, usually at the expense of the nice but prejudiced Phil Learoyd, a good copper and who doesn’t care for blacks. Racial prejudice, Inspector Hazard quickly learns, goes in any direction.
Second, the movie looks and moves very well. Deardon may have wanted to make a movie with a message, but he also produced a movie that is professional in the best sense of the word. The message is effective but it doesn’t slow down a good mystery. There are a number of candidates for the murderer and Deardon keeps us guessing. He builds interest in just who Sapphire was and why she was killed through interviews with the people who knew her, visits to London sites, modest exposition as Hazard thinks out loud and vivid looks at some complacent, some sympathetic and some rough people. Deardon even throws in a dark, desperate night chase that looks like some sort of homage to Odd Man Out. It’s out of place but it’s masterfully done.
Third, Nigel Patrick, who gives another of his bravura performances full of class and style. Patrick was a star English actor who radiated confidence and intelligence. He was at his best playing characters that had wit and sympathy. He could handle bravery and scamming with equal charm and equal believability. Who remembers him? Probably not many. If you want to sample his acting and his versatility, try Trio (as Mr. Know-all), The Browning Version (as Frank Hunter), Breaking the Sound Barrier (as Tony Garthwaite), The Pickwick Papers (as Mr. Jingles) and The League of Gentlemen (as Race).
Am I overselling Sapphire? Probably a little. It’s still a good movie.
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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer (Charley2)
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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