Monday, July 6, 2020

FAVOURITE MOVIES: Sapphire, 1959

The BAFTA award for Best British Film was given to Sapphire in 1960 out of a field including Look Back in Anger, Tiger Bay, Yesterday's Enemy, and Northwest Frontier. The thoughtful and engrossing murder mystery with a social conscious has an original screenplay by Janet Green (Cast a Dark Shadow) and confident direction by Basil Dearden (All Night Long).

Someone hated Sapphire Robbins enough to stab her to death and dump her body in Hampstead Heath. Nigel Patrick stars as Chief Inspector Hazard whose job is to determine who. The police must look into the why and the where. All of those people in Sapphire's orbit must resign themselves to the questioning and suspicion.

Earl Cameron, Nigel Patrick

Earl Cameron plays Dr. Robbins, Sapphire's brother. When he arrives to claim his sister's body, the police have a new avenue of investigation. Sapphire came from a mixed-race background and while her brother resembled their black mother and Sapphire their white father, her status as a "coloured girl" brings unconsidered depths of emotion to the case.

Nigel Patrick, Paul Massie

Paul Massie plays David Harris, Sapphire's fiance, and the father of her unborn child. What did he know of Sapphire's background and was it of import? Perhaps it was important to his family. His father played by Bernard Miles was as proud of David's architectural scholarship as if it were his own. Olga Lindo plays a mother of quiet intensity and Yvonne Mitchell is his sister Mildred whose life revolves around appearances and propriety.

Exploring Sapphire's past, the police meet bigoted landladies, a bright doctor, and the friends she left behind the day Sapphire found she could pass for white. These friends include a dancing partner who leads the police into a violent criminal element. There are too many options in the hunt for a possible murderer.

Nigel Patrick, Michael Craig

The murder investigation is well-written in its logical progression and the people who fall into its net. The investigation also brings up deep-seated attitudes that may hinder the search for a murderer. Michael Craig as Police Inspector Learoyd finds his never before explored attitudes on race the subject of rebuke. Rupert Davies as beat cop Ferris has pertinent observations on the Harris family.

Who knows what?

The bigotry that is accepted as a matter of course. The false face put on for investigators. The fear of suspicion. The knowledge of which you are certain may prove false. These are the emotional components that compound and confuse an investigation. Facts are needed for courts and emotions must be ripped open to find the guilty.

Sapphire is uniformly well-acted with Nigel Patrick's Inspector Hazard outstanding as the strong centre of the story. Yvonne Mitchell, Paul Massie, and Bernard Miles impress as the Harris family continually come under police suspicion.

Philip Green (Innocent Sinners) composed the moody score which is played on the soundtrack by Johnny Dankworth. Oscar and BAFTA winner Julie Harris (Simon and Laura) was the costume designer on the film, taking both her young and older Londoners into the 1960s.

Shot in Eastmancolor, Sapphire is a pleasure to watch for its aesthetic which brings us into its world while at the same time keeping us at arm's length as observers of humans at their best and worst. Harry Waxman was the winner of the British Society of Cinematographers award for his work on the film. Janet Green was the winner of the "Edgar" from the Edgar Allan Poe Awards (Mystery Writers of America) for Best Foreign Film.

Sapphire is a film worth watching for many of its excellent aspects. The success of this film led to Basil Dearden and Janet Green collaborating on the groundbreaking Victim, 1961.


  1. I remember Sapphire as an excellent film, ahead of its time (as with other British films such as Victim and Room at the Top) in its looks at social attitudes and prejudices. It also stars one of my favorite actors, Nigel Patrick, very talented, of great range, and charismatic. Should have been a bigger star!

    1. Indeed. Nigel Patrick is one of those fellows I tend to take for granted. I paid more attention this time and was able to appreciate his fine work as the Inspector.

  2. ROZ RYAN turns 69 today. I remember her from AMEN where she played a church lady named AMELIA HETEBRINK. BARBARA MONTGOMERY played her sister. The show starred SHERMAN HEMSLEY as a deacon named ERNIE FRYE and CLIFTON DAVIS as a pastor named REUBEN GREGORY. Clifton was already a pastor in real life. The show came on NBC in 1986, a year after 227 came on. 227 starred MARLA GIBBS and HAL WILLIAMS. Sherman and Marla had been on THE JEFFERSONS as GEORGE and FLORENCE(his maid). All three of those shows were good. I like 227 a little better than AMEN.

    1. I remember many of those performers fondly, especially Clifton Davis, but I didn't watch those programs.

  3. Paddy Lee, good write-up of a very good police procedural murder mystery movie. I first saw SAPPHIRE(filmed 1958, released 1959)on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1976. As I've mentioned before, because of THE CBS LATE MOVIE, I was able to see several British movies that had never been shown on prime time network television, or had never be shown at all on USA television. Also, many television premieres of various other movies that wouldn't be shown anywhere else on network television.

    SAPPHIRE is a crime drama that also shows us a middle-class to upper middle-class Black slice of life as well as delving into a hidden London underground. This is a tough British "kitchen sink" movie that is worth watching.

    Look forward to your next write-up. Walter S.

    1. Thank you, Walter.

      The history of when and how audiences gain access to certain movies is as important as the movie getting made. When an outstanding film makes an impression it is easy to pinpoint and appreciate the opportunity we had to see it.

  4. Sapphire is an unusual name. I remember that I mentioned the first name PARIS as in PARIS HILTON and PARIS JACKSON(the daughter of MICHAEL JACKSON). There is TUESDAY WELD(whose given name is SUSAN). SUMMER used to be an unusual name. TANYA TUCKER had a song out where the character had the first name SPRING. Back then I had probably not seen SPRING BYINGTON yet.

    1. Not a very common name, but goes along with parents who name their children after gems like Ruby or Pearl. The Hebrew form of the name is Saphira.

  5. Sapphire sounds like a good one, and I'm looking forward to seeing it. Thanks for the post about it.



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