Basil Dearden’s 1961 film, Victim, represents a significant moment in British film history. Released into a world where sex between adult men in the United Kingdom was a heavily policed crime, it is the first British film to use the word homosexual inside a narrative that thoughtfully and unsensationally captures the cumulative daily stresses and deadly effects of the law. Dearden was no stranger to the so-called social message film – Sapphire (1959) tackled racism towards London’s West Indian community – but Victim, scripted by Janet Green and John McCormick, was arguably more daring.
Under the guise of a thriller, Victim addresses how the criminalisation of homosexuality made gay men, as a character says, the victims of “any cheap thug who finds out about our natural instincts.” The law was effectively a licence for blackmailers; this constant threat of exposure and extortion is built into the film’s fabric from its opening scene, where Philip Green’s ominous piano score sets a tone of fear and paranoia. In a line of dialogue drawn from fact, we learn that as many as 90 percent of all British blackmail cases at this time had a homosexual origin. Dearden’s film is shaped by outrage, which caught the public imagination – Victim has been cited as one trigger for the Sexual Offences Act, which eventually decriminalised homosexuality in Britain in 1967.
Victim marks another big moment in British film history, specifically for its star. Dirk Bogarde’s 34th film shifted the trajectory of his career, dismantling the matinee idol status he had established under contract with the Rank Organisation in the decade before. With Rank he made light, trivial films, like the Doctor series that began with Doctor in the House (1954). These demanded little more from Bogarde than looking beautiful. But the role of closeted London barrister, Melville Farr, let him navigate darker, deeper material. In Victim, Bogarde delivers a performance of considerable candour and vulnerability – an exploration of a more complex identity, and arguably, of himself.
We watch Victim today, of course, with the knowledge that although Bogarde was never open about it, he was a homosexual. Bogarde is an actor whose public persona and screen persona both embody contradictions. For the first half of his career, across comedies and war films, Bogarde was a cinematic figure of heterosexual desire. And yet with Victim he embraced the risks to his career posed by playing a gay man. He must also have known the questions this might raise about his personal life. In his later years, Bogarde published several bestselling volumes of memoir – throughout this carefully constructed record of his life there was no mention of homosexuality. Yet Bogarde lived for nearly 40 years with his ‘manager,’ the actor, Anthony Forwood, until Forwood’s death in 1988. Despite the law change in the late 1960s, a pattern of secrecy was established that was difficult to break.
Bogarde’s life and career expose a tension between surface and depth. He presented a sophisticated, debonair, carefully manicured exterior, but underneath lurked the suggestion of darkness and melancholy. As Margaret Hinxman notes in The Guardian at the time of his death, like all the “most mesmerising screen actors” Bogarde “could convey a quality of stillness which suggested hidden turmoil and torment.”1 It is this quality of stillness masking hidden torment that is most memorable about his performance in Victim – the film, concerned with what is furtive and hidden, plays with these tensions, ultimately turning them into self-revelation.
We see early on that Melville Farr is a man in conflict with himself. He’s married, with a loving wife, but his true desire lies elsewhere. His marriage to Laura (Sylvia Sims) is childless, which although uncommented on, tells us much. Melville is on track to be a Queen’s Counsel by 40; a defender of the very legal system that categorises him as a criminal. Much of Bogarde’s performance in the film’s establishing sequences maintains a controlled, elegant exterior. But the cracks in both Melville and Bogarde’s ‘performances’ appear gradually. We see them first as he rejects the increasingly desperate phone calls he receives from Jack ‘Boy’ Barrett (Peter McEnery) – the young wages clerk with whom he was involved, who has been stealing from his workplace to pay off vicious blackmailers.
When he visits the police station, Melville paints a picture of a one-sided obsession on Jack’s part; that it started with his giving him a lift home once, but then “wet or fine, he was always there.” He tells the police he has no idea what Barrett could have been paying to have kept quiet; he’d destroyed his letters and warned him to stay away. Because of the turmoil roiling beneath Bogarde’s skin, we don’t believe Melville. Dearden keeps the camera on Bogarde, his face lit up and exposed. When Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) tells Melville that Jack killed himself, Melville is visibly shaken. We know this although Bogarde barely moves. We read it in the stillness of his face. The cracks widen. We see it first in an astonishing scene in which Melville confesses the truth to Laura about his relationship with Jack. Melville stands in darkness as his wife questions him, but in a startling moment, he turns to face her and the camera, stepping into the light to release the truth. That light is cold, clinical, harsh; Dearden placing Bogarde’s face under a microscope. With nowhere left to hide, Melville cries, “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him!”
But even more powerful, is the near ‘meta’ exploration of this conflict when Melville’s crusade brings him in contact with a famous actor called Calloway (Dennis Price). Melville’s conversation with him, in Lord Fullbrook’s (Anthony Nicholls) rooms, reads like Bogarde having a conversation with himself. He wants the men, who rightly fear imprisonment, to come with him to the police to inform them about their blackmailers. Melville says to Calloway: “You’re a star … People like you set a fashion. If the young people knew how you lived, mightn’t they think that an example to follow?” The line between Melville and Bogarde blurs. It is a bold statement, but an ambiguous one too. It suggests that Melville thinks it would be good if Calloway was openly gay, that this could turn public opinion. But the comment that follows, made by Fullbrook, that while children need to be protected, what consenting adults do together should not be regulated by law, confuses the matter. In addition, the line is somewhat mumbled by Bogarde, as if he hasn’t quite committed to its clarity, to whether an example can be set for the world by an actor/man like him.
A mirror is erected here, to look at Bogarde’s own complex presentation of his sexuality. As Melville says, towards the end of the scene, it is difficult to live life in an honest way: “Many of us reach the grave without arriving at that stage of responsibility.” Just like Melville Farr, Bogarde lived much of his adult life under the same destructive law – we must assume he suffered the same burden of secrets, lies, compromises, and betrayals. While Bogarde never publicly came out, the second act of his career – from Victim, and then the edgy, European films, The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963), Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971), and The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974) – functions as a sort of cinematic coming out. These performances tell us who he is. To watch Victim today is to watch a confession – the excavation of a deeply held secret by its star, doing what he could to show the world who he really was at a moment in history when this must have been immeasurably difficult, if not impossible.
Victim (1961 United Kingdom 100 mins)
Prod Co: Allied Film Makers Prod: Michael Relph Dir: Basil Dearden Scr: Janet Green, John McCormick Phot: Otto Heller Ed: John D. Guthridge Art Dir: Alex Vetchinsky Set Dec: Vernon Dixon Mus: Philip Green
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Anthony Nicholls, Peter Copley, Norman Bird, Peter McEnery, Donald Churchill, Derren Nesbitt, John Barrie, Nigel Stock, Mavis Villiers