A pregnant girl is found murdered in a a London park. Things quickly get complicated for all concerned. That is for the police–superintendent Hazard (Nigel Patrick) and detective Learoyd (Michael Craig), and family–her parents, the Harris’s (Bernard Miles and Olga Lindo), Sapphire’s brother Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron), her fiance David (Paul Massie), and David’s sister Mildred (Yvonne Mitchell). In this still-segregated society, Sapphire’s mixed race background becomes a factor, and a divisive issue.
Sapphire’s body is found by a couple of kids; David’s taken in for questioning. He lets on that he was engaged to her. They sorta believe his alibi. Dr. Robbins comes to talk to Hazard (who does a double-take seeing that Robbins is black). Robbins starts to break up. Before he leaves he’s introduced to Detective Learoyd (another double-take).
Hazard makes an apt conclusion “she died because she was colored.” David comes back to the cops to basically admit that Sapphire’s unborn baby is his. His dad backs him up, Learoyd’s pretty pesky with the family “Did you know she was colored?” Seems they did.
Learoyd and Hazard disagree about David’s culpability. They talk to a constable who knows the family; he vouches for them, but really talks too much, and creates some new loose ends. At the site where the body was found, Robbins talks amicably with Hazard–after a bumpy start.
The cops discover that Harris family van was laid up the night of the murder, so it couldn’t have used it to dump the body. They talk to a doctor, a shop girl, a former landlady. This sequence is interesting for a couple of reasons: it seems very authentic, and it’s definitely a slice of life (the doctor points out the absurdity of ‘knowing’ someone’s race; the landlady absurdly professes to do just that).
Next up is a black attorney, Slade. He’s a former flame of Sapphire’s. He hadn’t seen her since she “got a yen to marry light.” But, back in his car with his girlfriend, it’s obvious that he knows something–they mention a Johnny. Meanwhile, David’s at the body dump site. He finds something and ditches it down a storm drain.
The cops are onto him and retrieve the thing; just a piece of wood. A pipe? A flute? Back at home, his mom can tell he’s hiding something. There’s blowback on the family as now everyone knows about Sapphire’s passing for white. Mildred takes David’s side against their mom. The mystery is already very compelling.
David might’ve done…what? and then, Slade’s angle? David goes out for a walk at night. The cops go to the ‘colored’ club (blacks, Asians, Indians, Sihks). Apparently, the pass-for-white ability gave Sapphire an excuse to turn her back on ‘those people’. Looks like Slade’s girlfriend is up to something.
She actually does come over to the cops. She clues them in about the elusive Johnny, a guy who partied with Sapphire. She too resented the girl for going white. She gives them a lead to a dive, The Tulip. “Lots of Johnny here tonite, Sir…all the Johnnys in the world are here…” says the bartender to the inquisitive Hazard.
Another guy tells them–nope, never seen this ‘lily-skin’ Sapphire. As we might figure, as soon as the cops leave, Johnny appears. He’s too hot, and is told to split. The cops, not unawares, were lying in wait, and pursue him. He’s turned away and rolled by some mod racists in an alley.
Finally, a kindly white newsdealer tries to help, but he’s cornered. He’s made to answer for himself, while David returns from his long-dark- night-of-the-soul walk. Back with the cops, Johnny claims not to know Sapphire. Finally he cops to that, but will only allow that he danced with her. “Find the knife, and we’ve got him!” remarks Hazard.
They look into his horrid lodgings. And indeed find the match to the partial picture they had of Sapphire dancing with someone. More importantly, the cops find Johnny’s switchblade. David’s possibly off the hook; the detectives are off to talk to an alibi witness for David. Aha! This guy gave him a ride all right, but many hours before David previously claimed.
David’s got more alibi, but they have the piece of wood–it’s a knife handle. His motive would be that he would lose his scholarship if Sapphire’s identity were revealed (after their marriage). It turns out that David’s family didn’t know of her identity until the day of her murder. Could dad be the killer?
There’s some possibly incriminating stuff in the old guy’s shed. The family attorney thinks the cops have “a good circumstantial case.” Poor Johnny, though…is he being framed? He lets on he had a fight with a guy named Horace (Robert Adams) the night of the murder. Johnny didn’t want to talk, because he thought he’d killed the guy. Man, this Horace is a character! Turns out, thanks to a blood stain on the floor from the fight, he inadvertently provides Johnny an alibi.
Well, Johnny’s in the clear. Sapphire’s brother is asked to come to the Harris’s. The idea is to smoke out…who? Almost out of the blue, it’s Mildred who cracks. I say almost, because she’s showed panic before with the police regarding the case.
Still, it’s a masterful denouement. Made even better by David’s admission that he thought his dad did it. With a final goodbye to Robbins, Hazard tells his colleague “we didn’t solve anything, we just picked up the pieces.” Very true.
Like its companion piece from a few years later (Victim, 1961) Sapphire unravels an outstanding mystery around a core of social commentary. With grit, tension, wit, and a palpable sense of danger, it succeeds at every level. We see the hip side of London’s along a sharpened edge. It’s mostly in juxtaposition to the more ‘respectable’ set’s quieter lives.
The elaborate and hazardous game of survival forced on the blacks–the barely concealed disdain when addressing whites as “boss”–shows forced jocularity as a way of maintaining dignity. The grim atmosphere isn’t overdone, though; the music and conviviality in the clubs has the authentic veneer of fun pop culture that’s available to everyone.
It’s the rough fit between the ‘colored’ and white cultures that’s central to the movie’s theme. That is, Sapphire has to be dead before we can even see what multi-racial life might be like. Even so, she might as well haunt the Harris’s, for her overt impact as the ‘victim’ of the title.
Amongst the ‘good guys’, it’s notable that the older Hazard is much less prone to the knee-jerk stereotyping of the much younger Learoyd. This testifies that prejudice isn’t generational, but rather a function of one’s level of maturity and judgement. No one is altogether good or completely evil.
The performances were excellent all around; Mildred’s role is as passively fascinating as Horace Big Cigar’s is effortlessly flamboyant. Likewise, the pacing didn’t let up from the first scene to the denouement. We don’t suffer any flashbacks or lead-up to establish Sapphire’s character; she’s literally introduced to us as a corpse.
Another interesting conceit: Sapphire’s ‘lily-skin.’ We could assume that, given the times, she might be more sympathetic because she ‘passes’ for white. But I doubt the filmmaker hedged any bets. Her ambiguous, even changeable identity makes her both attractive and repulsive to both blacks and whites–at various moments, and for different reasons.
There’s so much going on here: David’s struggle with his father, the two detectives with each other, poverty v. respectability–that we’d expect the racial content might obscure or, conversely, get lost in the subplots. No. Sapphire is so of a piece that all of its elements complement each other. 10/10.