I watched Basil Dearden’s great, powerful movie, ‘Victim’, again last night – it must be 25 years since I last watched it.
‘Victim’ was not a vehicle to showcase and build the ‘matinee idol’ Dirk Bogarde. Dirk had left the Rank Organisation (Film Studios) by the time he starred in ‘Victim’ and although he had starred in some serious movies, his image was that of the consummate English heart throb and his aspiration to be a ‘serious’ actor had not been advanced by his, albeit money-spinning, starring roles in the comedy ‘Doctor’ films.
In ‘Victim’, gay men are being blackmailed by a couple of particularly unsavoury and vile characters. I have a feeling that the male blackmailer (in the film credits, ‘Sandy Youth’) is supposed to be himself gay (the camera zooms in on a picture of a nude Roman model which is hanging on a wall in his flat) – if I’m right, the hypocrisy would make him all the more repugnant. I assume that if the blackmailer is gay, it would have made it easier for him to find his victims.
Dirk Bogarde plays a very successful barrister, Melville Farr, who has just been informed that he is to be made a QC. Farr is married to the beautiful Laura, played by Sylvia Syms. Farr admitted to his wife, before they married, that he had had a relationship with a man (who killed himself when Farr ended the relationship). Farr told Laura, before they married, that it was all in the past and that he no longer harboured homosexual feelings.
Farr befriends a young man, “Boy” Barrett (played by Peter McEnery), who, it appears, has fallen in love with Farr though he, Farr, ends the friendship before he falls for the young man. The relationship was emotional but not sexual. Barrett keeps trying to contact Farr, not to blackmail him, which is what Farr suspects he wants to do, but to tell him that he himself is being blackmailed. The blackmailer has a photo of Barrett and Farr in Farr’s car, Barrett crying. This emphasises the atmosphere of paranoia and fear at the time, that a photo of the two men in a car, one of them crying, is enough to frighten Barrett into stealing to pay off a blackmailer and Farr into fearing the collapse of his marriage and his career. Barrett just wants help and I guess wants to warn Farr about the photo. Farr, unaware of what’s going on, tells Barrett to leave him alone and won’t speak to him. Barrett is arrested for stealing and hangs himself in his prison cell, fearing that the blackmail will become apparent and that Farr’s identity as the other man in the photo will be revealed. Suicide ends the investigation, Barrett will have hoped.
Farr is devastated by Barrett’s suicide and by his, Farr’s, complete misunderstanding and incorrect reading of the lad which led to his suicide. Farr decides to, with the help of one of Barrett’s friends, track down the blackmailers, to turn them in to the police and to give evidence for the prosecution in court even though he knows that it will mean the end of his career and will put his marriage on very shaky ground.
In 1961, when the movie was made, it was still an offence to be an ‘active’ homosexual (male) despite the fact that it was 4 years after the Wolfenden Report was published – it took 10 years for the Report’s recommendations (“homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”) to make it to the Statute Books (Sexual Offence Act 1967). Before 1967, gay men were being thrown into prison simply because they were gay. One of the themes of ‘Victim’ is “the blackmailer’s charter”:
in the movie, Detective Inspector Harris (played by John Barrie) states the obvious when he says to the bigoted Bridie (John Cairney):
“There’s no doubt that a law which sends homosexuals to prison offers unlimited opportunities for blackmail”.
The barman and Brenda, the other blackmailer, are other vile bigots. The juxtaposition of their views with those of Detective Inspector Harris and poor Henry (Charles Lloyd-Pack) makes it quite clear which side of the argument/debate the producer, Michael Relph, and Director Deardon are on –
“I can’t help the way I am but the law says I’m a criminal”
Henry is such a pitiful character, he really pulls on the heart strings – terrific acting by Lloyd-Pack (father of Roger “Trigger” Lloyd-Pack).
(An aside, we also see Frank “Captain Peacock” Thornton as George, Henry’s assistant – Thornton, unbeknownst to him in 1961, is a future star of TV and theatre – he is ‘uncredited’ in the movie).
Dirk Bogarde is/was a terrific actor, one of England’s very finest. I don’t think he ever ‘came out’ as gay but it is assumed that he was gay. I don’t imagine that it was suspected when he made the movie in 1961 (outside his circle of family, close friends and close work colleagues) but watching it, knowing what we know, or strongly suspect, now, watching Dirk play the desperately unhappy, frustrated and tormented Melville Farr when, in real life, he had to keep his own homosexuality a secret, that makes watching this movie, at times, difficult and a deeply uncomfortable, though magnetic, experience. Dennis Price, who plays a famous, successful theatre actor, and Hilton Edwards, who plays P.H., both being blackmailed, were also gay in real life. I guess that Bogarde’s, Price’s and Edwards’ real motivation for making this movie, the first movie to really get the message into the public domain, was that, to publicise the injustice of the law and to try to influence public opinion.
This is real ‘film noir’, sexual intrigue, suspense, moody, dark, heart rending psychological torment, emotion, love, repugnant characters. The music (Philip Green) is at the heart of the melodrama, as is the camera work and lighting. For example, when Detective Inspector Harris tells Farr, when he, Farr, asks if he can see and talk with Barrett, that that is impossible because Barrett has hanged himself, the camera zooms in on the shocked, shaken, horrified Farr. The horror is palpable. Another example, towards the end of the movie, is when Laura, desperately worried, suspecting, crumbling, questions Melville in one of the rooms in their home about Barrett: the camera focus, the light and, of course, the acting, the viewer can’t avoid being swept up in the drama and emotion. Laura wants to know the truth, she pleads vehemently with Melville, he tries to avoid coming out with it but she breaks him down:
“Alright, you want to know, I shall tell you. You won’t be content until you know it, will you, till you’ve ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him, do you understand, because I wanted him! Now, what good has that done you?”
I sensed a lifetime of anguish, anger and frustration in Bogarde’s tirade – that acting came from deep within the recesses of his heart and soul!!
I was incredulous when I learned (thanks, Wiki) that that “I wanted him”, spoken by a man about another man, was one of the reasons why the British Board of Film Censors originally gave the movie an X rating!!
Some other reasons for the X rating (Wikipedia citing “Harper’s Magazine”):
when the co-blackmailer, Brenda, produces a tirade against homosexuality, her view, popular, according to the BBFC, with the public at the time, would be, they wrote, ‘discredited’ because she is a nasty, repellent character in the movie (so the BBFC wanted to PROMOTE Brenda’s vile opinion!!)
Also, homosexuality was, the BBFC said, portrayed in the movie as a lifestyle choice and they thought that was “a dangerous idea to put into the minds of adolescents who see the film”. Unbelievable!! It is now a PG/12 in the UK.
In the US, initially, the movie was not approved by the Hollywood Production Code and when the Code was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America, the film was given an X rating, the rating usually given to pornographic films! The film is now a PG-13 in the US.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the movie was released in 1661, not 1961!
Victim was a very important, ground breaking movie which doubtless played a role in changing attitudes between the 1957 Wolfenden Report and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. It shines a light on a shameful time in the history of England and the tragic, broken, frustrated lives of so many men. The depression, the utter despair, the loneliness and the fear – terror – is unimaginable. Of course, prejudice is, sadly, still alive and well but at least institutional, legally-supported anti-gay bigotry in England is now history.