Released as a part of its Eclipse series, a line of budget-minded DVD/Blu-Ray Criterion Collection sets devoted to bringing obscure movie greats to cinephiles’ attention, Basil Dearden’s London Underground is a fascinating four-film collection showing both the city and the British film industry in a major moment of transition. Originally released from 1959 – 62, the films packaged here mix genre and socially-minded drama in ways that remain compelling. You could call Dearden the Stanley Kramer of his country were it not for the fact that the Britisher is a much defter storyteller.
The set opens with Sapphire, a murder mystery inspired by the racially motivated 1958 Notting Hill Riots. Centering on the rage-filled killing of a bi-racial college girl who was “passing” as white, the movie follows superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) as he moves between university clubs to middle-class family setting to the black immigrant community, uncovering the racial attitudes in each. As in a later entry, 1961’s Victim, the elder Hazard is paired with a younger, less tolerant copper, the better to reflect the era's range of tolerance/intolerance.
Sapphire is the only offering in Underground released in color; the remaining three were filmed in evocative black-and-white. First of these, 1960’s League of Gentlemen, is a tightly wound caper flick that follows a group of former soldiers who’ve all been unable to fully assimilate back into honest society after the war. Using a paperback potboiler as their template, leader Jack Hawkins’ crew first steals supplies from an Army Command Training Center, then use these to pull of a robbery — essentially giving us two capers for the price of one. Aided by a strong male cast (Patrick again and Richard Attenborough among them), League moves swiftly but never loses sight of its deeper subtext: the not-so-benign neglect experienced by many returning WWII veterans. Think of it as a much less self-pitying take on The Best Years of Our Lives.
It’s with Victim, the third film in Underground, that Dearden and his collaborators found their most provocative storyline, though. Released in 1961, when homosexuality was still a jailable offense in England, the movie follows a group of gay Londoners who are all being blackmailed for their sexual preference. One of these, rising barrister Melville Farr (wavy-haired matinee-idol Dirk Bogarde in his first overtly gay role), strives to uncover the blackmailer’s identity after an infatuated young man (Peter McEnery) is arrested with photos and news clippings about Farr in his possession. Our closeted hero, married to schoolteacher Sylvia Sims, denies that anything happened between them, but in digging into the lives of the blackmailer’s victims, he risks having his own sexual preference exposed. He perseveres anyway.