Film/DVD: review

Victim

Victim
Directed by Basil Dearden
 
1961, Great Britain — 100 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.66:1 widescreen — Suspense

Taut, well-acted thriller, and a landmark gay film.

Review

ImageDon't let the title mislead you. Victim is about a man who is anything but helpless.

Dirk Bogarde, in a career-defining role, plays a highly respected, but closeted, attorney who risks his marriage and reputation to bring to justice an elusive blackmail ring terrorizing gay men. In the early sixties, when director Basil Dearden made Victim, public exposure meant not only disgrace but possibly jail. Victim was then perhaps the most daring film to appear on the British screen. Not only was it the first film in which the word "homosexual" was spoken (gasp!), it was the first since Anders als die Anderen (Different from the Others) in 1919 to plead tolerance for gay people. Victim was a surprise hit at the box office, and many regard it as the work that finally stirred Parliament to begin amending Britain's cruel and archaic laws against "homosexual acts."

Historical importance aside, Victim still holds up as a taut and entertaining thriller, with excellent performances and some striking cinematography. After more than 40 years, actor Dirk Bogarde's protagonist remains one of the screen's few out and out gay heroes.

ImageSir Dirk Bogarde's distinguished career, as both actor and author, spanned a half century; on his 65 films he worked with such acclaimed directors as Joseph Losey (The Servant, Modesty Blaise, Accident and more), Alain Resnais (Providence), and Bertrand Tavernier (Daddy Nostalgia), not to mention such gay cinematic titans as George Cukor (Song Without End and Justine), John Schlesinger (Darling), Luchino Visconti (The Damned and Death in Venice), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Despair). Victim marked his 36th film appearance.

As Bogarde wrote in his 1978 autobiography, Snakes and Ladders, "It is extraordinary ... that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three." He recounts the many problems which plagued the production, including overt hostility from both production people and the crew. One attorney involved in the project, Bogarde reports, "wanted to wash his hands after reading the script.... [But] I believe that the film made a lot of difference to a lot of people's lives." One can only imagine the powerful emotions it must have inspired in gay audiences, who had never before seen, in any film, a man battle for tolerance and understanding of them. Yet straight audiences could feel reassured, or at least placated, that at the end the bond between Farr and his wife has been strengthened.

ImageVictim uses an ingenious structural device, which might have proven equally effective for both gay and straight audiences. Namely, we never see the two central characters together. Farr and Jack "Boy" Barrett (hauntingly played by Peter McEnery), the young man who loves him and whom he loves, never appear together onscreen. In fact, the first third of the film involves Jack's increasingly frantic attempts to contact the nervous Farr, who dodges him every way he can. While that "non-meeting" certainly upped the comfort level for many, it also provides a unique dramatic strength. It makes absence powerful in its suggestiveness. And later in the film, we never forget that Farr's single-minded mission – in his role as part lovesick man, part avenging angel – is to bring to justice the blackmailers who drove Jack to kill himself. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Jack and the understandable, noble even, reasons for why he stole money from the construction company where he worked to pay off the blackmailers.

ImageJack is at least as important a gay character as Farr. While Farr stays with his wife (who provides both comfort and social status), Jack remains a gay man who makes the best of the unforgiving society in which he lives. We never doubt his love for Farr, or his affection for the various middle-aged men in love with him. As played by Peter McEnery, Jack is a likable guy, unpretentious and authentic, not to mention handsome. Even more than the wealthy and debonair Farr, Jack must have presented a role model for many at that time (and a heartthrob for others). His growing fear – and eventual suicide – is caused by the blackmailers and the homophobic society which tacitly supports them, not by any intrinsic weakness in himself. Although Jack dies within the first half hour, he dominates the film, causing not only Farr but, on some level, the audience to ask, What injustice caused this affable young man to kill himself?

And that puts all of British society, both gay and straight, on trial. Asking such implicit questions is a strategy in the best social problem dramas, including Elia Kazan's film about anti-Semitism, Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Norman Jewison's thriller about racism, In the Heat of the Night (1967), and even a more recent film about homophobia, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia (1993). The only dramatic limitation of Victim, although it is politically admirable, comes when Dearden and the screenwriters, Janet Green and John McCormick, let polemics take over in the film's second half. There they try to show the broad impact of homophobia on the widest possible socioeconomic range, from both the straight and gay worlds. But there are simply too many characters, representing too many permutations of class and taste, in too brief a time.

ImageClearly the filmmakers had the best intentions, and in fact there are many powerful scenes, especially between Farr and his wife Laura (played with emotional complexity by the beautiful Sylvia Syms) as they work out the new contours of their marriage. But overall the film’s second half was less effective than its first.

In the opening hour, Dearden brilliantly used cinematic means – expressive lighting, slightly off-kilter compositions, propulsive narrative rhythms, and jazzy music - to explore character and theme (all captured superbly in the DVD transfer). In the first half of Victim, I saw and felt what it was like to live in that tense world, while in the second half, I heard characters tell me about it. Of course, both techniques can be valid, although I prefer visual storytelling; and viewers who enjoy a more theatrical manner will be richly rewarded in the second half. (Speaking of theatre, for aficionados of the musical, across from Mr. Doe's bookshop we see, from several angles, the West End playhouse offering the original stage production of Lionel Bart's Oliver!)

ImageAbout the suggestive title, Victim: How many different kinds of victims, both and straight, might be referred to? And although I don't wish to be more polemical than the film, it's worth asking, Aren't homophobes as much victims of their own ignorance and fear as the "different" people they persecute? You can see the poison in characters like the young police officer Bridie come to full venomous bloom in the bookseller's pinched and puritanical secretary. Aren't they as much victims as the people they hate? Gay men were victims under the law, but the people who hate them – like all bigots – also victimize themselves, tightening their own screws until they exist only in a constricting little world of fear and self-doubt.

I highly recommend Victim, not only for its historical importance to both gay cinema and rights, but because it is still an engrossing, well acted and often strikingly designed film. And although the legal and social situation of GLBT people has improved markedly in the past four decades, there is still much emotional truth and insight in this landmark film.

NOTE: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD – One of the film's biggest surprises came when we learned that the blackmailers' accomplice was the bookseller's secretary. With an irony of which she is oblivious, she works with the blackmailers, who are themselves homosexual (victims victimizing still other victims), in order to vent her rage against her gay boss and all of the other queers. She explains her motive by hissing, "They disgust me. They're everywhere you turn, and the police do nothing. Nothing! Someone's got to make them pay for their filthy blasphemy." Her brief monologue is absolutely chilling, even as her "mannish" appearance is highly suggestive. She reminds us that many of the most virulent gay-haters are themselves latent homosexuals, projecting their own self-loathing onto a conspicuous target. This may be yet another of Victim's subtle, but probing, insights which is still all too relevant.

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Crew

  • Directed by Basil Dearden
  • Written by Janet Green & John McCormick
  • Produced by Michael Relph
  • Cinematography by Otto Heller
  • Music by Philip Green
  • Edited by John D. Guthridge
  • Art Direction by Alex Vetchinsky

Cast

  • Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr
  • Sylvia Syms as Laura Farr
  • Peter McEnery as Jack "Boy" Barrett
  • Dennis Price as Calloway
  • John Barrie as Detective Inspector Harris
  • Anthony Nicholls as Lord Fullbrook
  • Donald Churchill as Eddy Stone

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DVD

Home Vision Entertainment has created an excellent DVD transfer of the film, doing full justice to the rich, moody cinematography. The print used seems of archival quality, with only a couple of fleeting scratches. The sound is full and natural. The major bonus feature is an enjoyable half-hour 1961 interview with Dirk Bogarde, as always a sparkling raconteur.

DVD Details

Reviewed January 25, 2003

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