Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Recent discovery: Sapphire

The British were decades ahead of us, with films that thoughtfully explored race relations; 1959’s Sapphire is an excellent example. Director Basil Dearden’s tidy drama initially unfolds like a standard police procedural, but Janet Green and Lukas Heller’s intriguing script soon moves in directions twisty enough to earn that year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Foreign Film. Sapphire also was nominated for four BAFTAs, and won in the top category of Best British Film, beating Look Back in AngerTiger BayYesterday’s Enemy and North West Frontier.

The icing on the cake: Philip Green’s terrific jazz score, performed by saxman John Dankworth and his orchestra (anticipating the latter’s own slide into a successful scoring career, which took off with the following year’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning).

The story begins with the discovery of a young woman’s body in a London park: stabbed to death, and soon identified as Sapphire Robbins, a Royal Academy of Music student. The case falls to the meticulous Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick), who with Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) quickly hones in on the victim’s fiancé: architectural student David Harris (Paul Massie), about to surmount his humble working-class origins to become an architect, thanks to a recently awarded scholarship. David’s behavior is odd, to say the least; when an autopsy reveals that Sapphire was pregnant, Hazard becomes even more suspicious, because the scholarship would not have covered a wife and family. Matters aren’t helped by the obvious antipathy David’s parents (Bernard Miles and Olga Lindo) had to the impending marriage.


Ah, but then things get complicated.


While following leads that suggest Sapphire once was something of a wild child, Hazard and Learoyd are surprised to discover that she was a “lily white”: the daughter of mixed-race parents. Previous boyfriends Paul Slade (Gordon Heath) and Johnnie Fiddle (Harry Baird), both Black, clearly were unhappy when Sapphire abruptly turned her back on that part of her heritage, and “went white.” She essentially “traded up” by marrying into a white family. Suddenly faced with too many suspects, Hazard must rely on dogged police work, and the implications of a clue left behind when Sapphire’s body was dumped in the park. (Green and Heller play fair: Sharp-eared listeners have an opportunity to anticipate that clue, thanks to a casual remark made early on, by one of David’s young twin nieces.)


Green’s score opens with a screaming, three-note unison horn fanfare against the initial title credits; this is followed by a threatening drum roll, as Sapphire’s lifeless body is tossed into the park shrubs late one night. (This is the last we’ll see of her.) The credits resume as the cue charges into pulsating jazz riffs, highlighted by frantic horns; the orchestra briefly settles into an disquieting vamp that ultimately introduces — as the credits conclude — the main theme’s primary 6-5 unison horn motif, heard against a throbbing, march-like base line.

Dankworth supplies a sultry sax cue when Hazard and Learoyd, while searching the dead girl’s flat, discover salaciously sexy clothes within a locked dresser drawer. Subsequent efforts to learn more about her background bear fruit when the two policemen meet her brother, a Black Birmingham doctor (Earl Cameron) whose racial “reveal” is punctuated by an unnecessarily dramatic unison horn stinger (a bit of musical overkill likely to prompt a wince these days).


Meanwhile, David’s behavior has become decidedly strange. Surveillance cops watch him walk back and forth along a park pathway, near where Sapphire’s body was found: clearly looking for something. A doleful sax cue tracks this search, along with David’s subsequent discovery of something that he attempts to discard, not realizing that he’s being watched. (The attentive copper quickly retrieves the item.) The sax cue turns melancholy — even distraught — when David subsequently goes home and is confronted by his mother, who knows something isn’t right. He dismisses her; a somber echo of the title theme is heard when he evades further conversation by taking a late-night stroll.


Elsewhere, Hazard and Learoyd follow up on Sapphire’s “previous life” by visiting the hot spots where she formerly loved to cut a rug. An energetic piano/sax duo supply lively source music during a visit to the International Club. The subsequent stop at Tulips’ Club is even more raucous, with the resident combo delivering an electrifying blast of jump jazz. Deardon holds on this sequence, allowing the music to run long, while Hazard and Learoyd watch dancers and hangers-on lose themselves “once they hear the beat of the bongos.” The detectives are seeking Johnnie Fiddle, who leads them on a frantic foot chase through late-night streets and alleyways; a ferociously swinging action jazz cue tracks this lengthy sequence, when the desperate young man runs afoul of racist barflies and vicious Teddy Boys. Finally getting caught by the police comes as a relief, although the subsequent interrogation is rather brutal. Although Johnnie’s behavior is dodgy, Hazard ultimately decides he had nothing to do with Sapphire’s murder. The answer lies elsewhere.

Indeed. A pensive woodwind cue tracks David, when he returns home the next day and examines one of his niece’s handmade dolls. The mood shifts abruptly — the music becomes loud and angry, reflecting young man’s dismay — when Hazard and his entire force, armed with a warrant, search the garage/workshop where David’s father stores his supplies. In the aftermath — the killer now revealed — Dankworth’s melancholy sax delivers a forlorn arrangement of the title theme, when Hazard and Learoyd bid a final farewell to Sapphire’s brother. The theme continues as the camera lifts to a blue sky, and fades as the end credits conclude.

No soundtrack album was produced, although Green’s title theme was released as the A-side of a British Top Rank 45 single, paired with Laurie Johnson’s title theme for Tiger Bay

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