Victim (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 12 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Today’s matinée scheduling of Victim is a sign of the times. When it was made in 1961, this was a brave and controversial picture that turned people away thanks to its subject matter yet won critical acclaim and over time did much good.

Victim is on one level a crime film about blackmail, but it’s the people being extorted who matter. The early scenes are dominated by Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery), on the run for stealing money from his employer. Yet Barrett has little to show for his thievery and it emerges he needs the cash to pay off blackmailers. Largely shunned by those he turns to for help, the man ends up getting arrested and subsequently hangs himself in his police cell, just before the photographic evidence linking him with Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) can become public. Remorseful over Barrett’s death, Farr resolves to bring the blackmailers to justice, knowing full well that taking them to court will almost certainly spell the end of his prestigious legal career. Farr, despite his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms), is a closeted homosexual, and in early sixties’ Britain, ‘sexual behaviour between men’ was still very much a criminal act.

Gay people had never before been represented on the screen the way they were in Victim. Whilst the film comes across as sympathetic, what it really does is emphasise their normality, their very averageness. They present no threat to society, instead living their ordinary lives and forced to keep their sexuality a secret. As a distant study of repressed Britain, Victim pulls no punches. It must simply have been torturous to be homosexual and alive in such an era.

Bogarde wasn’t the first actor to be approached for the lead role. Jack Hawkins, who had worked with director Basil Dearden in the previous year’s The League of Gentleman, discretely turned it down. Others in the running included James Mason and Stewart Granger, and Bogarde was nobody’s idea of first choice after starring in a string of films that played up to his good, clean movie star looks. As it was, he relished the change. Bogarde was pushing 40 and sick of being offered parts for clean cut, younger men. His dignified performance in Victim – watch his face when the sympathetic Detective Inspector played by John Barrie speaks the word ‘homosexual’, the first time it had been uttered in a film – is revelatory. He plays Farr as a man weighed down with the burden of feelings he can’t express, which peels away cautiously as other characters accept him all the same.

The best bits are those between Bogarde and Syms. The pain expressed by both characters is right there on the screen, also the confusion over the fact they continue to have feelings for each other. By the end, the impression is of relief that theirs is an honest relationship, within which they can draw strength from each other.

Despite a wordy script, Dearden never lets Victim get suffocated with the weight of its political baggage. At heart, it’s still a crime flick, and whether that’s down to not overloading the audience with its ‘message’ or intending to make a thriller that just happens to focus on gays being blackmailed, the slow-burning tension is brought nicely to the boil. At the close, Barrie explains to Bogarde that he doesn’t have feelings about ‘this law against homosexuality [being] the blackmailer’s charter’, which suggests there was still some way to go before the law and, perhaps more importantly, the public attitude changed.

Victim: ***

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