The Many Genres of Basil Dearden

January 24, 2020

Initially known for his Ealing dramas such as They Came to a City (1944) and The Captive Heart (1946), director Basil Dearden would go on to achieve something all filmmakers dream of: consistency. Along with regular producer Michael Relph, with whom he first collaborated with on 1943’s Fires Were Started, Dearden enjoyed a bountiful career, helming melodramas which examined the stress points in the spirit of post-war national regeneration. The protagonists of his films were atypical – even criminal, in the eyes of more orthodox storytellers – but Dearden’s lean direction drew audiences into their plights.

The Square Ring (1953)

Decades before Rocky made male moviegoers want to drink eggs, this taut adaption of Ralph Peterson’s play took us to the most dangerous place in boxing: the locker room, pre-fight. Balancing his knack for genteel comedy with streetwise dialogue, Dearden takes a scalpel to the Queensbury Rules image of the sport, and turns his confined location from a place of horseplay into a confession booth. Five fighters – a rising star, a has-been, and a crook among them – are given the chance to explain why they want to go the distance. It might seem naïve or chirpy at first glance, but this snapshot of pre-plastic London is ahead of the curve, capturing the moment the sport fell prey to commercialisation. The story would later go on to be televised in 1959, starring a little-known Sean Connery.

The League of Gentlemen (1960)

Inspiring both Alan Moore’s comic strip and the cult BBC comedy troupe, this laser-focused caper expands on an idea from Dearden’s earlier film, Out of the Clouds (1955): how can soldiers find fulfilment after the war? In the case of Lt. Col Norman Hyde (Jack Hawkins), forced into early retirement by the army, the answer is revenge via a daring cash robbery on a military compound. Gathering an ensemble of compromised ex-junior officers including Lexy (Richard Attenborough) and “Padre” Mycroft (Roger Livesey), Hyde sets about plotting to steal £100,000 per head. Foreshadowing the Great Train Robbery with its idea of a “peaceable” heist, and influencing Hollywood crime sagas for decades to come, The League of Gentlemen doesn’t waste a second – its robbers-in-respirators sequence deserves to be held in the same technical regard as Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). 

Man in the Moon (1960)

Singleton William Blood (Kenneth Moore) seems to be a cyborg with a side parting. Impervious to pain and illness, he earns a living as a guinea pig for the Common Cold and Flu Research Agency. His qualities leapfrog him to the front of the queue to be Britain’s first astronaut, and it’s there where he hits a snag: falling in love with stripper Polly (Shirley Anne Field). Now devoid of his mythical immune system, Blood needs to keep his secret from rival candidate and proper astronaut Leo (Charles Gray, whose dastardliness no doubt helped secure his future role as Bond’s nemesis Blofeld). Man in the Moon is a zippy satire that combines the power of infatuation with research from NASA, the Soviet Union, and the then British Air Ministry. The “moon weather” in the finale only adds to its charm.

Victim (1961)

The third of Dearden’s works to be included in the Criterion Collection, Victim caused a storm on its release with its closeted central character Melville Farr (Sir Dirk Bogarde), a married barrister who’s targeted by a ring of blackmailers. His wife is aghast – homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales at the time of the film’s release, and would remain so until 1967 – but with the extortioners driving their targets to suicide, Farr decides to risk everything, from his cosy Chiswick house to his legal career. An unimaginably brave film by today’s standards, Victim features a second hero in John Barrie’s progressive Detective Inspector Harris, who views the antiquated anti-sodomy statute as “a blackmailer’s charter”.

All Night Long (1962)

On paper it sounds like a recipe for disaster: adapt Othello for the Soho jazz scene. But once again, Dearden’s meticulousness pays off – he even uses multi-instrumentalists Johnny Dankworth and Tubby Hayes for the smoky performance scenes. Patrick McGoohan is scheming drummer John Cousins, an antihero who broods from the back of the stage, and who’s set on torpedoing Paul Harris’ marriage to singer Marti Stephens as a springboard for a solo career. The gentlemen’s ties are pencil thin; the beats like automatic gunfire; McGoohan wields his drumsticks like a puppeteer as he tries frantically to convince Harris that his wife is cuckolding him.

Life for Ruth (1962)

After his daughter severs an artery playing on the beach, amiable Jehovah’s Witness John Harris (Michael Craig) refuses the transfusion required to save her life. “It’s just a legend, man!” exclaims her aghast surgeon, but Ruth’s father is determined to honour his religious teachings, and spare his daughter from damnation. Janet Munro gives a gripping performance as Harris’ conflicted wife, torn between the man she loves and her only child. Dearden frames her character’s anguish against some fantastically wind-hewn Durham locations, and shifts the film’s tone from its kitchen sink opening to the climactic courtroom scenes.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Roger Moore’s favourite of his own films, this trippy thriller remains overlooked, perhaps due to the actor’s six appearances as James Bond. It’s high time audience reacquainted themselves with the tale of marine engineer Harold Pelham, gadding about ‘60s London in his Rover P5B until a string of speed limit signs causes him to turn daredevil, put his foot down, and crash. Waking from cardiac arrest, Pelham becomes convinced that his life’s being dismantled by an imposter: he suddenly has a mistress, and has apparently been sabotaging his own firm’s earnings. Could he really have an evil doppelganger? Whose is the pale Lamborghini which seems to be following him across the city? The Man Who Haunted Himself saw Dearden push his audience down the rabbit hole, and was tragically the director’s final film before his own demise – in a road accident, no less.

George Bass Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist

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Use the discount code NETWORKBLOGBASILDEARDEN to receive 25% off Man in the Moon, Victim (Blu-ray & DVD), All Night Long (Blu-ray & DVD), Life for Ruth, and The Man Who Haunted Himself until 4pm, Friday 31st January.



Comments:4

  1. Adele Winston Reply
    20/01/25

    The daring cash robbery is on a bank, not a military compound.

  2. Jonathan Mitchell Reply
    20/01/26

    Apologies for being pedantic but the late, great Sir Roger Moore appeared as James Bond on 007 occasions, not 6.

  3. Lee kitchen Reply
    20/01/27

    Would love to see Only When I Larf released (1968) on Blu Ray

  4. Glenn Butler Reply
    20/02/11

    You’re right, of course, Adele. They rob the military compound to get the guns to rob the bank!

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