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Synopsis: Barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is really going places. He’s seemingly happily married to the beautiful Laura (Sylvia Syms) and is on course to becoming a Queen’s Counsel. However, when his friend “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) steals a large sum of money and then commits suicide, Farr finds himself increasingly involved in the investigation being led by Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie). It seems Barrett was being blackmailed by someone threatening to turn him in to the police for being a homosexual — and he’s not the only victim. How far will Farr go to find Barrett’s killer — and how much is he willing to reveal about himself at the risk of destroying his career, his image, and his life?
Basil Dearden‘s Victim broke major ground when it was released in the United Kingdom in 1961. For one thing, it was the first English-language motion picture in which the word “homosexual” had ever been used. Secondly, in its fictionalization, it brought to light what was then a major problem in England: the issue of blackmailers using the long-outdated anti-sodomy laws as a way to extort money from gay (and straight) men. Basically, if you engaged in homosexual activities (or somebody just said you did) and an extortionist found out and said they would rat you out to the police if you didn’t give them a large sum of money, you either had to fork over the cash or let them squeal on you to the cops, which likely meant you’d face a fine or prison sentence, not to mention the complete annihilation of your career and public image.
Sound familiar? Why yes, Victim covers essentially the exact same territory as 1919’s Different from the Others, only in a different time and place and with a different outcome. While Different from the Others fell on fairly deaf ears, Victim was relevant enough to contemporary audiences to start a real public debate on the British law against homosexuality, eventually leading to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalized homosexual acts in private between men over the age of 21. Mind you, the age of consent at the time for heterosexual acts was 16; the age of consent was not equalized for both hetero- and homosexual acts until the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act of 2000.
Rising to prominence as a matinee idol, Victim‘s star, Dirk Bogarde, was one of the most popular British actors of the 1950s, starring in the 1954 hit comedy Doctor in the House and the 1958 screen adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. A consummate bachelor and rumored homosexual, it was a risk for Bogarde to take on Victim, yet one he reportedly embraced without the slightest hesitation. Not only that, but he claimed to have a direct hand in making the film as revolutionary as it was. “It was the first film in which a man said ‘I love you’ to another man,” Bogarde would later recall. “I wrote that scene in. I said, ‘There’s no point in half-measures. We either make a film about queers or we don’t.'” Although met with overt hostility from members of the film’s crew and production staff, Bogarde was proud of the ground Victim had broken. “I believe that the film made a lot of difference to a lot of people’s lives.”
Although Britain may have been ready for a film which so frankly tackled homosexuality, America – or at least its motion picture censors – was not. The Motion Picture Association of America found Victim unacceptable because of its “candid and clinical discussion of homosexuality and its overtly expressed plea for social acceptance of the homosexual to the extent that [he] be made tolerable.” Although not much could be done about the latter problem, given that it was the basis for the entire film, credit should go to director Basil Dearden for refusing to cut the forbidden words “homosexual” and “homosexuality” from the soundtrack. Victim was released in the United States without an official seal of approval from the MPAA – similar to a film today being released as “unrated” – dooming it to commercial failure. Critics, many with their own ingrained biases, refused to comment on Victim other than to note with distaste its earnest pro-homosexual message, and it achieved only mild success in the art house circuit while being overwhelmingly shunned by the general movie-going public.
Without question a historically important film and earth-shaking at the time of its release, watching it today Victim does wind up feeling sadly dated. Yet, at the same time, it’s almost too modern for me. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against the frank discussion and depiction of homosexuality in film. (I mean, I do host this blogathon.) But I think I’ve been spoiled by queer theory and using my own powers of deduction to find coded allusions in older films. It’s fun for me. Victim is kind of like receiving a puzzle that’s already been put together for you. The acting is stellar and the black-and-white cinematography is truly gorgeous, but I found myself a little bored by Victim. Still, if you’re interested in the history of queer images in cinema or even in the history of modern cultural attitudes toward homosexuality, this film is invaluable.
Victim (1961) – 3.5/5 stars