The title of “Basil Dearden’s London Underground,” a four-DVD Eclipse Series box set from Criterion Collection covering the late ’50s and early ’60s work of the British director, is a bit deceptive. To be fair, Dearden’s work was often prescient about the coming rebellions of the 1960s, depicting the beginnings of the black and gay civil rights movements. However, he did so from a well-intentioned but square outsider’s perspective.
There’s a world of difference between Dearden’s visions of interracial couples in “Sapphire” and “All Night Long” and the excoriations of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, recently honored with his own Eclipse box set, aimed at his country’s discrimination against Koreans. Dearden’s noble politics are often expressed through plodding filmmaking.
Still, he beat a seemingly more progressive director like Oshima to the punch in one respect. Dearden took on the subject of homosexuality when it was still illegal in Britain, creating a landmark of gay cinema with “Victim.” Oshima wouldn’t get around to addressing it until 1983’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”
Basil Dearden’s films broke ground on civil rights, gay rights, but not cinematic technique
'“Sapphire,” made in 1959, begins with children discovering the dead body of a 21-year-old college student named Sapphire. As the two cops investigating the case quickly discover, she was a light-skinned black woman passing for white. They meet her much darker-skinned brother and learn that her passing was a relatively recent phase. “Sapphire” is a character study of sorts; its central problem is that its protagonist is a corpse. Everything that happened in Sapphire’s life is told to the audience — and our on-screen surrogates, the police — after her death.
Dearden and screenwriter Janet Green’s storytelling is risky, and they’re not skilled enough to pull it off. The police procedural also seems like an excuse to sermonize about racism; not surprisingly, one cop is liberal, while another one occasionally spouts overtly bigoted statements. A brief scene at a jazz club, full of lively music and close-ups of musicians’ hands, where blacks and whites mingle, shows what “Sapphire” could have been. As it is, it intermittently suggests a Stanley Kramer remake of John Cassavetes’ “Shadows,” a far more cutting treatment of much the same subject matter made around the same time.
“All Night Long” takes off from the jazz club scene in “Sapphire,” but it’s not nearly as exciting. Inspired by Shakespeare’s “Othello,” it depicts Johnny Cousin (Patrick McGoohan) attempting to tear apart white singer Delia (Marti Stevens) and her black boyfriend, musician Aurelius (Paul Harris). The film takes place over the course of one evening, during the couple’s anniversary party, and features appearances by jazz legends Charlie Mingus and Dave Brubeck as themselves. It was shot entirely on a single set.
Unfortunately, its aspirations toward hipness are sabotaged by a lack of focus. The film is content to drift toward its narrative destination, interrupted periodically by musical numbers. Stylistically, Dearden takes his cues from the complex tracking shots of Max Ophüls, but he can’t match their poetic force.
By far the longest film in this set, “The League of Gentlemen,” in which a colonel organizes a group of corrupt former British military officers to pull off a bank heist, suffers from pacing. If the other films included in “Basil Dearden’s London Underground” look forward, this one looks backwards, toward the discipline and rigor of Britain during World War II. One is never sure whether its gaze is nostalgic or satirical. However, its two big set pieces — a raid on an Army weapons caché and the robbery itself — fall flat.
Eclipse has preserved the original British Board of Film Censors certificate for “Victim,” which gave it the equivalent of the MPAA’s present-day NC-17. Not bad for a film with no on-screen sex, violence, or even swearing. The highlight of this box set, “Victim” retains a righteous anger that transcends its sometimes preachy dialogue. For its first half hour, it cuts between two characters: “Boy” Barrett, a young construction worker and blackmail victim, and Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a middle-aged lawyer whom Barrett tries to contact. Suddenly, the subject of homosexuality is broached, and the film’s true plot becomes apparent.
“Victim” has a clear political agenda, but unlike “Sapphire,” one never gets the sense that Dearden is using genre forms solely to get across a message. Especially in its first half hour, the film works as a noir thriller. The dark lighting and cinematography are atmospheric. Bogarde’s performance is compelling. The film takes in a cross section of gay London in the early ’60s. Not surprisingly, the gay characters, aside from the married and closeted Farr, are so consumed by apologia and self-hatred that they make the cast of “The Boys in the Band” look like Harvey Milk. Nevertheless, the film is much more than a historical curio. Its anger still resonates.
“Victim” has been credited with influencing the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain in 1967. That effect may be questionable, but its impact on Dirk Bogarde’s career is less so. Until he made it, Bogarde had never really been taken seriously as an actor. He’d been regarded as a teen idol. Although he remained more or less in the closet in his personal life, taking the lead role in “Victim” was a coded form of coming out. He would go on to play homoerotically tinged roles in Joseph Losey’s “The Servant” and Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” and work with gay directors like George Cukor, Visconti, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. “Basil Dearden’s London Underground” might not make a compelling case for Dearden’s value as a whole, but “Victim” is a clear stand-out.
On sale Jan. 25