From the team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, the 1961 film ‘Victim’ is a ground breaking film about the precarious existence endured by the UK’s homosexual community, prior to legalisation in 1967. With such films as ’Violent Playground’ and ‘I Believe in You’, Dearden (director) and Relph (producer) are long associated with supporting the underdog. Working with screen writer Janet Green, who had previously penned the Dearden-directed ‘Sapphire’(1959), they produced a film that both reflected a changing society and aimed to drive forward those changes. This crusading image has meant that Dearden and Relph’s films have their detractors, with the films accused of being overly earnest and liberal tales that preached to their viewers in an effort to educate rather than to entertain. Despite such charges, ‘Victim’ is, above all else, a challenging film and is claimed as the first British film to use the word ‘homosexual’. As such, it’s a film that deserves to be seen and to be examined from the perspective of the social-historian.
It’s the story of a talented and successful barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) who faces exposure and ruin when a former lover ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McEnery) ...
...is blackmailed with a photograph showing them together. If Farr does not face enough troubles if he is exposed as a homosexual by any police action, he also faces having to reveal the truth to his wife Laura (Sylvia Syms). Hoping to avoid police action, Farr decides to investigate the case and reveal the blackmailer.
|Dirk Bogarde & Sylvia Syms|
It is not just the subject matter that is controversial (a sympathetic portrayal of a community that was widely vilified and faced both violence and legalised persecution at the time) but the casting choices were also a bold statement. The early sixties was a time when Dirk Bogarde appeared to have taken the decision to not only take on roles that pushed him far away from the heartthrob image of his early career, or the comic roles many associated him with, but also to move into a far darker territory. His sinister and manipulative role as ‘The Servant’ (1963) would be a revelation of Bogarde’s acting ability. In that film he was telling the world ‘I can act’! Yet two years earlier he had been sending out a more dangerous message. With skin tight black leather trousers and gloves worn as his cowboy costume in ‘The Singer Not the Song’ (also 1961), Bogarde hinted at a side of his sexuality that the film industry might have been uncomfortable with. Yet with ‘Victim’, Bogarde surely outed himself. Another actor who appears to be shedding his fear of exposure is Dennis Price as Calloway, a Noel Cowardesque actor ...
...who is another of the blackmailer’s victims. Price had famously struggled with his own homosexuality, becoming a heavy drinker and even attempting suicide as he balanced his sexuality with his public image that included a wife and two children. Here was another potential 'victim' of the law playing out a familiar role.
What is interesting is that there is very little said about the sex lives of these men. In an era when even to include the word ‘homosexual’ on-screen was considered controversial, the director was hardly going to be able to expose their sex lives. In many ways, by forcing the film to concentrate on the emotional side of their lives – in particular their longing for love and a ‘normal’ relationship – the film is actually more effective. By not showing any intimacy between the men – something that might have caused uproar – the subject of love, not sex, comes to the fore. Farr struggles with his love for other men, more than he struggles with his desire for them. The bookseller Mr Doe (another of the blackmailer’s victims) …
… wants, above all else, for ‘Boy’ Barrett to share his home, to live as a normal couple. It gives the film a tenderness that would be lost amidst depictions of any sexual contact.
As such, where the film is most effective is its portrayal of hidden lives. It’s a world of furtive glances across pub lounges; men drinking small glasses of port rather than pints of beer; of hairdressers with a history of convictions, unable to handle the ever present threat of exposure; men afraid of losing everything if their parents find out; lonely old men searching for true love that society has denied them; and men able to spot ‘one of their own’ from a distance.
Another important aspect of the film is its presentation of a world that is changing. Right from the opening credits the viewer is presented with London’s changing skyline: a new development reaching high above the surrounding landscape.
At one point, we see this development with the tower of Westminister Cathedral in the background. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe it’s a metaphor for a changing society in which the church is being challenged by a new morality. When we later see London’s skyline, it’s the traditional smoky landscape of chimneys in which St Paul’s Cathedral takes centre stage, representing the old world where religion suppresses modern sexuality.
The religious theme is returned to in a later conversation between two police officers …
… when the senior officer listens to his junior’s condemnation of homosexuals and reminds him that, at one time, men of his puritan religious beliefs were executed rather than tolerated.
The film is not without faults: the attitude of the policemen towards the homosexual community is hardly balanced. There is discussion of their being victims of the blackmailers: how their ‘crimes’ inspire others to commit crime by exploiting their vulnerability. Yet it fails to depict any of the violent hostility history shows us was faced by ‘queers’. This is a similar presentation of policing that Dearden and screenwriter Janet Green had used in ‘Sapphire’ (1959), a study of racial tensions in West London, where the senior policeman is sympathetic whilst his junior is hostile to Notting Hill’s growing West Indian population. A similar presentation was used in ‘Violent Playground’, where the policeman is sympathetic towards Liverpool’s poor and its population of juvenile delinquents. Or how the stuffy probation officer (Cecil Parker) in ‘I Believe in You’ grows to understand the youths he is given to support and rehabilitate. Maybe this was part of their message: that these figures of authority are individuals and that the main problem is society itself rather than any one element. Mind you, Dearden and Relph were also the director and producer of ‘The Blue Lamp’. Maybe they just liked coppers ….
Also look out for:
Charles Lloyd Pack:
David Evans & Hilton Nesbitt:
Anthony Nicholls (centre) & Peter Copley (right):
Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis will not be surprised to know that 'Victim' is currently available from the good folks at Network DVD: