A groundbreaking mid-century treatment of oppressed homosexuality that would be all the more impressive in 2014 if it had used it as the thriller maguffin it so very much wants to be, rather than as the subject of far too many Star Trek: The Next Generation speeches, and without a Patrick Stewart anywhere in sight.
Directed by Basil Dearden
Written by Janet Green and John McCormick
With Dirk Bogarde (Melville Farr), Peter McEnry (Jack "Boy" Barrett), and Sylvia Syms (Laura Farr)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Naturally, the summary review above the jump is devastatingly unfair to Victim, which has the distinction of being the first Anglophone feature explicitly about gay folks. The first to do so in any other language, according to the Source of All Knowledge, was Different From the Others, a 1919 effort made by progressives in Germany against their anti-sodomy laws. I've never seen it, but they must have just done a bang-up job persuading the average German citizen of their case. (Incidentally, as Different was banned in guess-who's Germany, Victim was banned in America. USA. USA.)
I've always had an inkling that Nazism was the argument for prejudice that undid itself, and we owe more than mere pity to the thirty million who perished at the hands of the Third Reich's multifarious campaigns of extermination—we owe them an unpayable debt. But if the Second World War began to unravel the systems of bigotry that had in large part defined Western civilization for at least two millennia, it still took a while to come completely undone. In 1961 Britain, as Victim makes (abundantly) clear, homosexual acts were straight-up crimes.
"If we want to stamp out the homosexual scourge, we must put them in a sex-segregated box with nothing to do all day but work out. It's the perfect plan."
Such a project as Victim was bound to be controversial, and so it was. Actors and actresses turned down the film left and right. So Basil Dearden went to Dirk Bogarde, the most famous actor neither you nor anyone you know has ever heard of, and if you think you remember his name at all, it's because it sounds like his parents' aspirations for him involved the topmost tier of adult entertainment. (And "Dirk Bogarde" is indeed a stage name, but short for the name on his birth certificate—all thirteen syllables and seven full words of it.)
Maybe just I'd never heard of him. I think he looks like Alex Siddig. (That equals dreamy.)
Bogarde took the part at once. Not coincidentally, Bogarde lived with his business manager for forty years. Unlike many in his position at the time—like Rock Hudson—he never bearded up with a wife. He never quite came out either, even in his later years. Perhaps it seemed unnecessary or irrelevant. He does not, however, exactly play a gay fellow in Victim either. By the end of the picture, I don't know who Melville Farr is, precisely. I think that is something of the point; alternatively, it could simply be one of the film's many awkwardnesses, but I prefer to see the best in Victim.
Though there are unavoidable flaws. As a victim of its times itself, Victim has allegiance to far too many masters to serve any entirely effectively. It is a propaganda piece; it is a sociological work; it is a commercial venture; it is a disturbing and depressing look at its self-denying protagonist; and somewhere in there is a totally cool murder mystery thriller that occasionally comes up for air.
For a little bit, though, it's very much the last, and we start out Hitchcock.
Pictured: sweet opening credits sequence with a Hermannesque score. (There's even some unnecessary Goddamned rear projection.)
For background's sake, Dearden's work was last witnessed in League of Gentlemen—by me, anyway, since Criterion skipped his 1960 comedy The Man in the Moon, which was apparently about a superhuman, not unlike Artie from The Adventures of Pete and Pete, getting tricked into being shot into space. (I think all civilized people realize that Criterion's decision to overlook this presumable lost classic was completely indefensible. I mean, you did read the preceding sentence, right?)
Gentlemen is a really fun movie, and it's about one of the best things a movie can be about—itself. It's not great, but it's a memorable entry into the heist subgenre, and it moves with precision and (until the last sequence where it gets bogged down) a rather superb sense of pace. And if Victim is the first movie that utters the word "homosexual," Gentlemen seems more progressive from our privileged standpoint. It not only has a perfectly normalized gay character as part of the gang—it's the first movie from its era I've ever seen where it's self-evident, rather than demanding you have the codebreaking skills of Alan Turing before society made him kill himself. I watched Rope and The Killing five times apiece, and I needed special features to tell me anybody was gay in those movies. League of Gentlemen is crystal clear. But the larger point is that Basil Dearden knew how to deliver a rollicking good time. (The tangential point may be that I'm slow.)
Victim is a bit more coy at first than Gentleman was; if you didn't know what homosexuality was, and as the movie progresses you may get the suspicion that the filmmakers weren't sure everyone watching did, you would probably be totally lost.
A young man is working on a construction site. When he spies a cop, instead of forming the nucleus of a disco band, he runs, for he is guilty of having embezzled a couple thousand quid and that particular game is afoot. He goes from friend to friend, finding little solace—an ex-lover, obviously still devastated, is particularly callous, and this is our first inkling of his orientation. It's basically the best possible way any story could do it; straight characters don't make speeches about being straight, they just depict the appropriate relationships in action. It's kind of startling that a movie from 1961 gets it this right, even if it is only for about twenty minutes.
Most callous of all, however, is our actual protagonist, Mel Farr, famous barrister and a married man.
We have to stop the gays from taking our women!
This "Boy" Barrett eventually runs out of luck, and the police catch him, cataloging his weird stalker-person collection of clippings about Farr's career. Eventually, between Farr and our two cops—each serving as one-half of screenwriter Janet Green's first socratic dialogue upon The Issues—we surmise the truth. Barrett was not an avaricious thief, but the victim of blackmail, a distressingly common problem for homosexuals in contemporary Britain. It's a bit too late to help poor Barrett, though—he's already hanged himself in his cell.
Farr, ironically believing that Barrett had been planning to blackmail him—though the man was in fact doing his damnedest to protect his would-be paramour—had ignored his pleas. Now Farr embarks down the long road to Damascus (or, as the case may be, Golgotha). Without regard for his marriage or career, he vows to track down the extortionists that cost Barrett his life.
But before you get too excited, there's almost no violence at all in this movie.
He reasons that where there's one victim of blackmail, there will be others, and he goes into London's gay underground, which is actually quite above-ground and obvious, to get a bead on the criminals.
And this is the occasion for a great many speeches that come close to watching the debate club from a particularly regressive school district practice their arguments. The endeavor is at once absolutely noble in its context... and bracingly dull in ours. It deflates the film to such an extent that even in 1961, when this was genuinely edgy stuff, you have to imagine people at least noticed it fucked with the pace something awful.
And that is the mode of the middle third of the film, veering from waving a flag of many colors (albeit in ultra-noirish black and white) to the real shit, which is the (also ultra-noirish) blackmail investigation. One suspects that without the declarations of principles, the film might not even be feature length, though this is probably not true. And the savvy reader probably has no need to be made aware of this, but it's worth mentioning that these scenes necessarily take the place of any organic depiction of homosexuality; Victim's gay characters spend approximately infinity times talking about being gay than actually being gay.
Only approximately, however, since with a cleverness so subtle that it took me several days to even get, Dearden manages a single gay relationship that looks at all like a relationship. This pair of long-time companions walk arm-in-arm down the street. They are permitted this mild but sweet intimacy by the brilliant expedient of the elder of the couple being blind.
They're kind of jerks, though.
But then there's the other mode of Victim, which begins to hit hard in the final third, that of a character study. We learn a great deal about Melville Farr, who had a would-be lover kill himself once before. He's so committed to propriety that the photos which once threatened Barrett and now threaten him are nothing more than the images of Barrett crying—when Farr spurned him, after (rather cruelly) courting him in the first place. They never, as they said in the 60s, fucked. In fact, it's not clear that Farr has ever fucked anyone, including his wife. It is clear that he does love her in some capacity—and she him, despite the rather thankless role the writers gave Sylvia Syms to play and her one-and-a-half-note way of playing it, involving the liberal employment of a form of nervous pacing that, occasionally, signals inner turmoil less than it suggests that Dearden forgot blocking was a thing that existed.
If Farr is a little too prone to declamation, Bogarde never fails to sell it as an aspect of a declamatory, somewhat pompous character who is also undergoing ego death for his principles—not terribly unlike Bogarde himself. It's easy to see why he was huge in the U.K.
Thanks to Bogarde, the Farrs' marriage is ultimately as believable as it is pitiful—twisted up with repression so thorough that I honestly don't know if Farr is gay, bisexual, asexual, or a Martian. And this is, as I said, the point: the use of social force to pound a man into a set role that goes against his innermost nature can't build a better society, only deform the man.
(Or woman.) (Or whoever.) (I'm progressive.) (More than you.)
As I also said, it could simply be because Victim was still, however polemical, a commercial venture, and while Bogarde was transitioning out of being a commercial actor, he still did have a career to consider—and thus having the main character leap out of his closet, divorce his exploited wife, and gyrate shirtlessly with the other (surviving) male characters while glitter flies across the chiaroscuro of his previously-nonexistent rock-hewn abs was simply not a possibility.
But as this would also be an exceedingly lame and ineffective happy ending, I am willing to give the picture the entire benefit of my doubt. Victim was something of a cultural milestone in Britain, and is credited with raising popular awareness of the "Blackmailer's Charter," helping turn the tide against the horrible laws that enabled them. Those laws were changed in 1967. It's Important Cinema.
For what it's worth, when it is in mystery mode, it's still a pretty rollicking good time, too, with a largely handsome, moody production—and red herrings galore. You will never guess where the mystery finally leads, and it doesn't seem like bullshit even so. That is the mark of a fine thriller... even if bald didacticism ain't. Victim hits importance; misses greatness; and winds up enjoyable—and moving—all the same.