Film

Dirk Bogarde's Victim helped to bring homosexuality out of the shadows

Shining a light on Dirk Bogarde’s pioneering performance
 in one of Britain’s first films about homosexuality.

One reason for seeking out Victim, a 1961 film on rerelease this week, is purely historical. It’s a strenuously well-meaning, often chewy, sometimes stilted drama about a plummy London barrister’s attempt to expose the criminals blackmailing a young gay man with whom he had a brief ‘association’. Victim is now remembered
 as one of the first British films to tackle explicitly the ‘issue’ of homosexuality, and at the time its polemic against the law outlawing gay sex – six years before the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexual acts – was a bold move.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPXjIySzzC8

Still… I watched this film in the week of London’s Pride parade, and boy does it feel creaky. The passage of time does funny things to films that once seemed daring and urgent. We have to wait a good 25 minutes before the love that dare not speak its name is finally spoken out loud, and on those few other occasions when the word ‘homosexual’ is uttered it’s accorded a kind of hushed potency: like an unfortunate disease, the sufferers of which are to be pitied.

I guess there’s a quaint, time-capsule fascination to this. Over drinks our crusading barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) discovers his colleague, an ennobled judge no less, is himself a gay man and subject to blackmail threats. “You’re a sophisticated man,” the good lord says with breezy 
equanimity: “You know the invert is part of nature. Sherry?”

The passage of time does funny things to films that once seemed daring and urgent.

“Invert”, “abnormal”; exhortations by medical professionals to gay men to change their ways and be “sensible” – Victim resounds with language that stigmatises gay identity as a problem, one to be dealt with sympathetically for sure but a problem nonetheless. Confused and patronising though it may be, however, there’s a campaigning social liberalism to Victim that I found moving.

The film is really an exposé of the way the law outlawing homosexuality leaves countless men open to blackmail. Its focus is on Farr, a married establishment figure who had a brief, unconsummated relationship with a young construction worker called Boy, evidence of which falls into the hands of a gang of disreputables. When Boy is caught stealing from his work to pay off blackmail demands, he commits suicide, which Farr, acting from a blend of guilt and moral rectitude, is determined to avenge. It’s a murky situation, and the film’s absorbing portrait of a world under the perpetual shadow of extortion and arrest has the rich intrigue of a good thriller: Victim appeals as a barometer of long-changed social attitudes but it also grips with muscular hold.

Victim_1961_01-incopy

Another reason for seeing this film is Dirk Bogarde. A matinee idol in the 1950s, Bogarde took considerable risk playing a gay man (though the film is at pains to set out he has never acted on his ‘urges’ and pairs him with a devoted wife, played by Sylvia Sims). It’s also a terrific performance from the actor, who lived with a male partner for much of his life though was publicly coy about his orientation.

British cinema from that era is really terribly awkward about sexual desire, which makes the passion and anguish with which Bogarde expresses Farr’s longing for Boy (to his wife in fact) all the more powerful. “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him,” Farr tells her of his decision to end his (chaste) relationship with the young man. “I wanted him.” It’s a scene that cuts through the dusty anachronisms of the rest of the film.

Victim is showing at London’s BFI

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