Taking a break from my 2016 TCMFF coverage to discover some of director Basil Dearden’s pictures. I had his Sapphire (1959) handy, and his Victim (1961) on my “to watch” list for this year so to make a triple feature I spun the Basil wheel and landed on Woman of Straw (1964).
Sapphire is a London-set police procedural centered on the murder of a pretty young woman. The detectives (Nigel Patrick and Michael Craig) quickly discover that this was a hate crime. The popular student was of mixed race and passing as white, and also pregnant and engaged to marry a white student (Paul Massie). He knew her secret but claims he loved her anyway, but his family is shocked to learn she was half-black, and soon suspect Massie is lying about his whereabouts the night of her death. Craig is the hot-tempered younger detective who says the woman’s racy lingerie is a sign of her blackness, that he can always tell which are the black folks no matter how “lily-white” they seem, and that all the problems of integration and crime would be solved if we just ship them back where they came from. Patrick plays the cooler head and more understanding authority, rolls his eyes at such statements, and gets down to the work of finding the killer. Clues lead them through the jazz clubs, where we hear some black people’s silly racial generalizations, like light-skinned black ladies always give themselves away by dancing and tapping their toes to bongo music, and it all leads through the upper class and back to the family for whom even the whitest-looking non-white is unwelcome. Daring expose for the time and still a fairly interesting social commentary wrapped in a crime drama. Well-done finale where the victim’s black brother (Earl Cameron) rattles and exposes the killer. Small part for Barbara Steele as a music student.
Secrets and social critique are again the subject of Dearden’s Victim, a courageous indictment of homophobia and England’s anti-homosexuality law at the time. The suicide of a young man is the thread police pull to unravel a slick blackmail network targeting rich and prominent gay men. Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a married and deeply closeted high-profile lawyer whose involvement with the suicide victim pulls him into an investigation of his own, not only into the lives of the other gay men being extorted, but also into his own comfort with his nature and the idea of becoming an outed advocate. Many similarities to Sapphire: older, wiser, sympathetic detective (John Barrie) teamed with a younger, insensitive know-it-all, and one of the two revolting villains here is much like Sapphire’s surprise killer. I found Victim a much more moving and successful look at bigotry, its victims are better developed, more complex characters and easy to sympathize with. Farr risks reputation, marriage and career to help police track down the blackmailers, and after living in deep denial and secrecy hits his breaking point and commits himself to raising awareness of the damage done by criminalizing someone’s nature. His wife (Sylvia Syms) loves him and his integrity but was deeply hurt by this episode’s reminder that he could never love her the way she expected. Great role for Norman Bird as the bookseller guilt-ridden over turning the young man away, and a very powerful film overall.
The provocative social issue movies ended there, because Woman of Straw was fun, soapy suspense. Gina Lollobrigida plays Maria, the new nurse to cruel, wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire Charles (Ralph Richardson). When his nephew Tony (Sean Connery) sees the old man is attracted to Maria, he seizes the moment he’s long been waiting for and talks Maria into marrying Charles for the money. Maria initially doesn’t have the stomach for this plot, and tries to run away a few times, but eventually feels for Charles, falls for Tony, and says yes to them both. When Charles unexpectedly dies before the will in her favour gets finalized, Tony begs her to cover up the time of death and wheel the body back home before anyone notices (think: Weekend at Bernie’s). Imagine her shock when a detective (Alexander Knox) arrives to inform her the old man was murdered, she’s the suspect and Tony denies knowing anything about her crazy behaviour. This movie was a bit long but a lot of fun; irresistible actors in glamourous surroundings (yacht, high fashion for newlywed Maria, fancy estate), and satisfying comeuppance for both nasty men, from their mistreated dogs and servants.