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.
Offering a broad cross-section of urban men — from working stiffs to members of the privileged elite (represented by an underused Dennis Price) — Victim provides a full range of takes on the Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name. (Tellingly, when it was released in the U.S., the distributor pressured the moviemakers to have the word “homosexual” removed from the soundtrack.) But in the end, its central premise proves sympathetic to its blackmailed victims. It’s the “blackmailer’s charter,” we’re told of the law criminalizing homosexual acts between two consenting adults, while the villain inflicting all the damage is described as a “cross between an avenging angel and a peeping tom.” The scenes between Bogarde and his not-quite-betrayed wife Sims are marvels of civilized emoting — you can see the bonds that hold this closeted man to his school teacher wife — while the movie’s collection of gay males and their circle of not-always-sympathetic friends makes for a distinct and colorful cast of suspects.
Dearden films it all with a sharp eye for the London of the early sixties (theatre marques in the background, omnipresent construction) — a city in transition but with plenty of the old attitudes still in place. Though it reportedly (per the one-page liner notes by Michael Koresky) received mixed reviews at the time of its release, the movie is now considered both a landmark in gay cinema and is credited with being a factor in the law’s 1967 repeal. If the movie has its small speechifying moments (screenwriter Janet Green also was responsible for Sapphire) its central mystery and moody portrait of the city still make it enthralling.
The final offering, 1962’s All Night Long, proves even moodier. A late-night re-imagining of Othello set in a London jazz club, it features a young Patrick McGoohan as jazz drummer Johnny Cousin, who plays Iago to black band leader Paul Harris and his white singer wife Marti Stevens. McGoohan is trying to break up the couple in hopes of luring the singer to play for him (no “motiveless malignancy” for this guy), and the movie tracks his scheming over a one-night celebration being held at Richard Attenborough’s warehouse club. The set-bound flick proves more dynamic than you’d expect, thanks in part to the musical guest appearances of jazz luminaries like Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus, who typically show up to do a number than vanish from the rest of the film.
A beautifully lensed black-and-white noir exercise, All Night Long backs away from a full-blown Shakespearean tragic finish, though you still leave the movie wondering how its bi-racial couple will handle the aftermath of McGoohan’s machinations in the morning. The movie’s biggest flaw proves Stevens’ singing Desdemona (here called Delia Lane), who comes across a mite too low-key to inspire the full-blown jealous rage that our jazzy Othello develops. She gets to perform a nice version of the title song, though.
Eclipse’s London Underground DVD set is relatively no-frills: each movie gets a one-page liner note and that’s it. Only time this proves a deficit is in the discs’ absence of closed captioning. While all four films are visually clean and sharp, the soundtrack to League of Gentlemen is low and sibilant, like a low-budget horror flick you might be watching at 2:00 in the a.m. on a local TV station. That didn’t bother this viewer too much, however. It brought back memories of when I first saw some of these movies in the seventies, in a university film society series — the copies of these films back then weren’t very pristine either — all part of the hardcore movie-lover’s experience.