Basil Dearden’s revolutionary film that combines impassioned social campaigning and powerful crime drama still feels as angry and powerful as ever.
Victim, made in 1961, is that rarest of things – the social issue film that can seriously be credited with helping shift public attitudes and even leading to a change in the law. It would be an extreme exaggeration to suggest that homosexuality was legalised in Britain in 1967 because of the impact of this film, but nevertheless, the shift in public perceptions of gay men that allowed that law to pass was certainly helped by this impressively dramatic movie, which slickly mixes its social commentary with a tense and gripping suspense narrative, ensuring that audiences were pulled into the story and the plight of its characters even if they had previously felt a revulsion to their lifestyles. But essentially humanising gay men, Victim made them less threatening and sinister for audiences who had perhaps only seen them as ‘queers’ and dangerous sexual predators. Through exposure comes acceptance.
Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a rich, high flying barrister with a beautiful wife (Sylvia Syms) and a career that is going places. He also has a secret – he’s gay, even though he appears not to have acted on his impulses beyond mild flirtations. Unfortunately, these flirtations seem to have been with younger men who took things rather more seriously. One of them, Jack ‘Boy’ Barrett, found himself the victim of blackmail after receiving an allegedly incriminating photograph in the post, leading him to embezzle money from his employers. When the police investigate, he goes on the run and then kills himself, but not before leaving evidence that connects him to Farr.
Wracked with guilt over his inactions (he’d ignored calls from Barrett, believing him to be a blackmailer, Farr decides to investigate the blackmail ring, taking him around London’s gay underground – though ‘underground’ seems an overly dramatic word for what seems to be a small community of nervous characters mostly centred around a single pub where everybody knows and nobody says anything. Several of these men are also being blackmailed by the seedy Sandy Youth (Derren Nesbitt) and his unseen partner, and an attempt by a hairdresser to escape their clutches by closing up shop and vanishing results in the man’s death by a heart attack after Sandy turns up to threaten him.
Farr’s investigation brings him to the attention of the blackmailers and forces him to face who he really is. It’s clear that his wife Laura knows of his sexual persuasion (there seems to have been a pre-marriage affair that also ended in his partner’s suicide), but had assumed it was a thing of the past. Now, Farr has to choose between his family and his career or doing the right thing by bringing the blackmailers to justice, knowing that the truth about him will come out in court.
The laws against homosexuality were a well-known blackmailer’s charter, and this film plays on that fact brilliantly. With even fellow victims unwilling to support each other, and almost all gay men still thoroughly closeted – many it seems, like Farr, unwilling to even admit it to themselves – people were ripe for the picking by unscrupulous individuals. This sense of fear and tension is expertly shown, with the film having the same tension as any other suspense thriller of the time (complete with a rather excitable thriller score by Phillip Green). This might be a message movie, but it’s not excessively ‘worthy’ – writers Janet Green and John McCormick and director Basil Dearden never forget that this is also a piece of entertainment, and with the exception of one scene, where the case for legality is put with the subtlety of a blow to the head, it works first and foremost as an effective drama.
While a film that explicitly called for homosexuality to be legalised was radical enough in 1961, what’s just as fascinating is how normal its gay characters are. Other than a rather fey stage actor played by Dennis Price (and seemingly inspired by Noel Coward), the gay men here are not shown as effeminate or camp. That might not seem such a big deal until you start to look at other films and TV shows made much later – even today, there’s a strong chance that gay characters in films and TV shows will be required to mince. British television, which likes to think of itself as very progressive, still likes its gays to be flaming. But here, at a time when homosexuality was still a serious criminal offence, was a film that showed gay people as – shock, horror – just like everyone else. Part of this might have been the need for secrecy of course – no one was going to be a mincing queen when it might lead to a prison sentence – but the film is at pains to point out that homosexuality is not a choice or a perversion, but a natural thing (and something that many at the time fought against, as is the case of Dirk Bogarde’s character). It might not seem such a radical idea now, but at the time, this was going against public and legal perceptions, and so was remarkably brave, for the filmmakers and the cast. Even the word ‘homosexual’ had never been heard on screen in the English language before this movie, and so a sympathetic film on the subject was risky, to say the least.
Bogarde – gay and closeted in real life, of course – must have related to the character and gives a first-rate, impassioned performance. His character might seem overly noble, but his motives seem believable. Syms too is excellent as the wife who is not exactly wronged (Farr hasn’t actually been having an affair, and she knew what he was before they married – though looking at the film now, you suspect he is possibly bisexual rather than gay) but perhaps thought she could change her husband – the film makes it clear that there is no ‘cure’ for homosexuality, either through the love of a good woman, medical treatment or prison.
Time, of course, has moved on and Victim in many ways feels like a curiosity now – the central idea of someone being blackmailed for their sexuality seems laughable, until you remember that people even now can lose their jobs if they’re exposed as being former porn stars or BDSM enthusiasts. People still fear the different, especially if it involves sex. In any case, this is a fascinating slice of (and warning from) history from a less tolerant time that is still gripping, fascinating and entertaining.
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