Sapphire is an example of the kind of film making that gave British cinema a bad name, but I say that not to dismiss it so much as to ask why the positive qualities offered by it and similar films are not acknowledged? It is no masterpiece, and its script- and actor-centered approach is unlikely to excite anyone interested in “pure cinema.” But as the police investigate the murder of a young black woman who passed as white, the film still holds attention despite its bland style, thus raising questions of why the theatrical tradition for which British film is notorious is so under-valued.
The source of the prejudice is easy to locate. As auteurism centered attention on the director, the solid scripts and complex characterization that are the strong suit of British films no longer interested critics. The chief beneficiary of this shift in emphasis was Hollywood, and most British films, while similar (they are in English, after all), seemed stodgy in comparison.
One reason is their tendency to subordinate technique to a serious subject. Sapphire handles race relations with a frankness that few Hollywood films attempt, much less equal. With the arguable exception of the investigating detective, Inspector Hazard (Nigel Patrick) none of the characters (including the black ones) are free of racial prejudices. Nonetheless, while racist attitudes prove central in understanding the murder, the characters are rounded and complex, not ideological props.
Basil Dearden (responsible for another famous social problem film, Victim) directs with the kind of invisible technique that guarantees auteurist neglect. His work is accomplished. You are never bored and he maintains a brisk, suspenseful pace, but he does so largely through performance. The camerawork is not “bad,” just unassertive and visually dull. As a result, and put a little too simply, we are not in the story, we watch it.
Ironically, the director most famous for manipulating form to weave the viewer into the story was a Brit: Alfred Hitchcock. It is as if he miraculously appeared out of the nowhere of British cinema to conquer the world, or at least Hollywood. (His British films are discussed far less than his American work.) Even obviously talented British filmmakers like David Lean and Carol Reed have not overcome the perhaps unintentional, but very real American chauvinism at work in auteurist criticism. “Cinema” came to be defined by what Hollywood did best. The tight writing, layered performances and sophistication about human behavior offered by British films had to be marginalized because Hollywood does not provide them.
Contemporary British filmmakers do not suffer this discrimination, but solid, older entertainment like Sapphire continues to be overlooked by critics, if not by audiences. It is as if to correct for the contempt in which Hollywood was originally held, all alternative pleasures had to be dismissed. Perhaps if Sapphire and films like it were in French, auteurists would take them more seriously.