A pregnant woman is found stabbed to death on Hampstead Heath and the subsequent police investigation initially follows her fiancé David Harris (Paul Massie) and tight-knit family. Things change when the murdered girl – “Sapphire” – is discovered to be of mixed race, although capable of passing for a “lily skin”.
In 1950s London, racial hostility to Commonwealth immigrants is openly paraded and, as Superintendent Robert Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and his partner Inspector Phil Learoyd (Michael Craig) begin to investigate, public prejudices begin to be exposed:
Such as the landlady who would never have rented to Sapphire if she’d known she was “coloured”, or Inspector Learoyd who muses that things would be better if “that sort” were “sent back where they came from”.
This graphic, casual racism is uncomfortable to watch through a modern lens – both white against black, black against white, and black against black (one of Sapphire’s former boyfriends says “My father would never allow me to marry Sapphire – she is only half black!”) – but the racism issue is thoroughly ventilated and probed and the film does not pull any punches regarding the pervading prejudice of the time.
Basil Dearden’s movie was considered groundbreaking and controversial in 1959, at a time when black people in British cinema were even rarer than in mainstream American movies.
Sapphire received the BAFTA Award for Best Film and has rightly been called the best British film on racism ever made.
The colour photography is outstanding – London is shot in crisp autumnal colours with nightclub scenes teeming with snappy suits, red petticoats and orange lipstick. The supporting cast is also superb, with Robert Adams providing the one moment of true humour with his great cameo as gangster caricature “Horace Big Cigar”.
Chief Inspector Hazard
Mr Ted Harris
Mrs Ted Harris
Police Sgt. Cook
Horace Big Cigar