Desperation and Bravery in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)

VICTIM (1961)

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In late 19th century England, the Criminal Law Amendment Act was implemented, not only banning homosexuality, but making it a criminal offense. For decades, this senseless, discriminatory and repulsive law targeted, and subsequently ruined, the lives of countless gay men in England. Fear of becoming social outcasts, these men were also at risk of losing their jobs and homes. But what made this law even worse was that it left the door wide open for blackmail. If these gay men weren’t already frightened of the serious consequences brought about by this inhumane law, they had to worry about being exposed and outed to their families and employers without consent. Much like Prohibition in America encouraged the rise of an extremely violent criminal underworld peddling booze and drugs, the Criminal Law Amendment Act created a lucrative business for unscrupulous individuals to profit off of secrets. Blackmail was such an issue within the gay community, that the Criminal Law Amendment was known as “The Blackmailer’s Charter.” In 1957, seven decades after the law was enacted, John Wolfenden, an educator, along with a committee comprised of doctors, religious leaders, lawyers and professors, came to a near-unanimous decision to recommend that homosexuality be decriminalized—their findings became known as the “Wolfenden Report.” While many of the observations made by the committee are archaic by today’s standards, they were both groundbreaking and controversial for the time. Unfortunately, it took England another ten years to decriminalize homosexuality. But in the years between the Wolfenden Report and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, there were no shortage of harsh social commentaries and protests in favor of equal rights for the gay men targeted by the law. In 1961, director Basil Dearden and producer Michael Relph released Victim, a cinematic masterpiece, with a groundbreaking, unflinching look at the shameful treatment of the gay community and condemnation of its blackmailers.

Melville Farr, played by the immensely talented Dirk Bogarde, is a barrister who is well known and respected in London, and by all indications, has a long, successful career ahead of him. In his office, Farr has a portrait of his beautiful wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms), prominently situated on his desk. When he comes home after a long day, the couple warmly embraces, sharing a kiss. Their marriage is a happy one, or so it seems. Farr is contacted by a young man, “Boy” Barrett, who is presumably seeking legal help. Barrett is in trouble with the law for embezzling money from the construction company where he works. Farr ignores Barrett’s request for help, and we soon discover that Barrett was stealing money to pay anonymous blackmailers who have threatened to not only out Barrett, but his former lover, Melville Farr. To avoid questioning by police and to protect Farr’s reputation, Barrett commits suicide. It’s this selfless act, and Farr’s own complicated feelings for Barrett, that drives Farr to discover who the blackmailers are, and bring them to justice—regardless of the damage it will most certainly inflict upon his rising career and, more importantly, his marriage to Laura.

VICTIM (1961)

While not terribly progressive by today’s standards, Victim was incredibly controversial and quite direct with its dealing with the then taboo topic of homosexuality. It is also the first English-speaking film to mention homosexuality by name. While exploring the complicated, dangerous world for gay men at that time, Victim also delves into the private, delicate inner workings of a marriage of convenience. Prior to their marriage, Laura was aware of Melville’s sexual proclivities, but was assured that it was merely a phase for him, and that their love for each other would overcome any hidden tendencies that might emerge. While there’s no doubt that he loves his wife, Melville is gay and painfully suppresses his feelings. His denial and marriage have no doubt influenced his impressive career track, but it’s clear that Melville is quietly suffering. When Laura discovers that Melville had a relationship with Boy Barrett (which Melville insists was never consummated), she obviously feels betrayed. But it’s Melville’s response to her line of questioning about his relationship with Barrett that is utterly heartbreaking:

 “You won’t be content until I tell you, will you, until you’ve ripped it out of me. I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand—because I wanted him.”

What’s so terribly sad is that, while he will fight to uncover the blackmailers (as an aside–in an interesting twist, it’s implied that one of the blackmailers is gay) and sacrifice his career as a way to repent for ignoring Barrett’s pleas for help, Melville will likely continue to live a closeted life, with or without his wife, Laura.

VICTIM (1961)

The film was also a direct hit at the discriminatory laws in England, with an agenda advocating for reconsideration and abolishment of those laws. But more importantly, the film depicts its gay characters as real human beings, not as villains or sexual deviants. These men are upstanding citizens, important contributors to society, with valid feelings and in need and deserving of love as much as their straight peers. Also, interestingly, Basil Dearden had some difficulty casting the role of Melville Farr. When he approached Bogarde, Dearden had already offered the role to several actors, including Jack Hawkins, James Mason and Stewart Granger. After reading the script, written by Janet Green and John McCormick, Dirk Bogarde accepted the role. Of the film, Bogarde wrote in one of his memoirs: “It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.” Bogarde was quite fond of his performance in Victim as it was a clear transition from his matinee idol typecasting. Bogarde also noted in his memoirs that his fans, many of whom were younger, had no interest in him portraying more serious roles. While he may have lost those young fans, Bogarde set himself apart by proving to be a multi-faceted character actor. And in an ironic bit of life imitating art, Bogarde’s own sexuality was the topic of much speculation, which Bogarde fiercely denied throughout his lifetime. Of course, it’s understandable why he wouldn’t have been open about his sexuality at that time, considering that for the first fifty years of his life, it was not only illegal, but would’ve been career suicide. And while Bogarde was fiercely private and never came out during his lifetime, many close friends have commented about his open secret and his longtime companion Anthony Forwood—with their relationship lasting for over forty years.

While there are countless films prior to 1961 that either have a clear gay subtext, or focus on the damaging stereotype of the “deviant homosexual” (see Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope [1948] and Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion [1959]), Victim is a landmark film in the history of gay cinema.

Jill Blake

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3 Responses Desperation and Bravery in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)
Posted By Helen : June 24, 2017 7:51 pm

This is a really good movie and Bogarde is good in it. There’s a very interesting documentary about Bogarde on YouTube that I watched a few months ago. I highly recommend it.

Posted By Susan Doll : June 25, 2017 9:24 am

I am writing about another Basil Dearden film for next week! Good to give a forgotten director his due.

Posted By Renee Leask : June 26, 2017 4:22 pm

I stumbled on this movie once, and it’s pretty great. Nowadays, we can forget how gay people suffered in Britain (and continue to suffer, especially in some third world countries), but this movie puts it simply and devastatingly. Farr becomes a better person as he fights this injustice, but to the public and himself he becomes a lesser man. And Bogarde is, of course, amazing.

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