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Eclipse Series: Basil Dearden’s London Underground

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Eclipse Series: Basil Dearden’s London Underground

Criterion Collection

There seems to be no particular plot-driving reason that the silver-haired Lt. Col. Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins) emerges from a grotty London manhole wearing a natty tuxedo in the opening shot of 1960’s The League of Gentlemen. Arguably, he could have been scouting for the elaborate bank heist he will spend the rest of the film plotting and pulling off, with the help of a cadre of other ex-officers down on their luck since the war. But it is an arresting image, and one that sets up the movie’s mix of stiff upper lip and lowball criminality, plus an excellent intro to the high, low, and groundbreakingly provocative material explored by British director Basil Dearden in a quartet of films recently issued on disc as part of the Criterion Collection’s no-frills Eclipse Series.

Dearden was, in most respects, a journeyman, with no classic canon fodder to his credit. But as this sampling of his late 1950s and early ’60s work reveals, he was an often effective filmmaker with a thing for button-pushing topics. Take Sapphire (1959), the only color film here, in which a lovely young female student turns up stabbed to death. As police Superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick) discovers, the woman was passing for white, a fact that expands the field of suspects to include her conspicuously nervous fiance (Paul Massie) and his family, not to mention exposes the bigotry of any number of characters, including Hazard’s partner (Michael Craig). It’s a drama as unshowy as dingy London itself, but it confronts pernicious racism head-on at a time when Hollywood still hadn’t started working up its courage for stuff like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Racial tensions also fuel All Night Long (1962), Othello recast in pre-Swinging London’s jazz scene, but the drama is even more inert. The main item of interest here, frankly, is footage of jazz luminaries Charles Mingus and Dave Brubeck bantering with Richard Attenborough and playing a bit. That and star Patrick McGoohan, in the Iago role, playing a fairly smokin’ drum solo his own bad self.

The most important of these “important” films—not to mention the best—is Victim (1961). Homosexuality was a prosecuted crime in England at the time, creating a booming market for blackmailers. Dirk Bogarde stars as prominent barrister Melville Farr, who finds himself drawn into the world of terrified closeted gay men and the villains who capitalize on their squirming. The fact that Farr has his own secrets makes his quest to expose the would-be exposers all the more precarious, not to mention his relationship with his wife (Sylvia Syms). Victim not only works as a relatively melodrama-free mystery, it also serves as one of those comprehensive cook’s tours of a time and place, from a building site to a cozy bookstore to the local pub to the halls of influence, all dotted with men with something to hide.

Truth be told, though, The League of Gentlemen is the set’s finest hour or two. Built on the then-novel idea of an audacious robbery planned and executed with military precision, it blends dry jolly-good humor with a handful of suspenseful set pieces (not least the elaborate robbery itself), plus sympathetic portraits of its desperate former soldiers—including, yes, one (played by chiseled Kieron Moore) being blackmailed for being gay. But Dearden never lets social issues get in the way of an expertly managed good time here. They make plenty like this anymore, but rarely this well.

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