It’s an average, pleasant day in Hampstead Heath. A lot of people are out and about; children are running and playing. But things take a grim turn when the children discover the body of a young woman who has been stabbed to death.

Sapphire 1959 Poster
(Image via MRQE)

Police get right to work investigating, learning that the woman was Sapphire Robbins (Yvonne Buckingham), a college student. Their investigation takes a turn when they meet the woman’s brother, Dr. Robbins (Earl Cameron), who reveals that he and his sister are the children of a white father and black mother.

Sapphire had been passing for white at the time of her death, and was dating a white man — David Harris (Paul Massie), a fellow student. Could her boyfriend be responsible for her murder? And was her death racially motivated?

Basil Dearden directs Sapphire, from an original screenplay by Janet Green (who also wrote 1956’s Eyewitness).

Sapphire is one of those films that grasped my attention immediately from its opening. Lively music plays as Sapphire, being attacked, falls and lands on the ground with a thud. It’s a stylized opening, and a very startling one.

From there, Sapphire begins as a pure procedural, with two Scotland Yard investigators trying to find their victim’s identity and questioning the people she knew. But after Dr. Robbins enters the picture and reveals the truth of Sapphire’s identity, the film evolves into an exploration of bigotry and race relations in late-1950s London.

This reveal happens about 15 minutes into the film. At first, it seems like a story of domestic trouble or jealousy. Was Sapphire killed by her boyfriend? Or, perhaps, a former love who found out about her new relationship? The truth of Sapphire’s identity complicates the case, as does the fact that she is discovered to have been a few months pregnant at the time of her death.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers and rants directed at particular characters, I struck a lot of my notes from this film. But if you’re thinking that Sapphire’s secrets only open up a wider field of suspects — particularly those with the last name Harris — who would be mad that she lied about her identity and even more furious about her pregnancy, you’d be correct. David’s family is a mess filled with varying degrees of hatred and evil. They’re infuriating to watch.

Sapphire 1959
(Image via Vintage Shack)

Basil Dearden was a director ahead of his time, often tackling social issues avoided by other British films (and Hollywood films, for that matter). It’s worth noting that screenwriter Janet Green also collaborated with Dearden on 1961’s Victim; they seem to have shared an interest in topics most of the industry was prone to avoiding. Sapphire is quite bold and progressive, especially for its time.

I can’t think of another film I’ve seen from the period that tackles racial issues in such an unflinching, matter-of-fact way. Dr. Robbins discusses his outright lack of confidence that there will be justice for his sister, because of her race; other characters, including Sapphire’s friend Patsy, must confront their own prejudices after learning the truth.

Sapphire is nicely photographed and offers an engaging, grim mystery, in addition to its social significance (which, sadly, does remain relevant). Definitely a strong recommendation from me — this film should be viewed and talked about more often.

Note: I originally watched this film on the now-defunct streaming service FilmStruck. If you’re interested in watching, it is now available on The Criterion Channel, iTunes, and Amazon as well as in Criterion’s “Basil Dearden’s London Underground” set.