In 1961, when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Britain, Basil Dearden was treading on egg shells when he directed Dirk Bogarde (who was, unbeknown to the cinema-going public, homosexual), in this really quite brave venture, especially for Bogarde, as he strove to move away from his matinee idol image but at the same time created suspicion around his own sexuality. The film was summed up rather nicely by Walker (2004: 945) when he wrote: ‘A plea for a change in the law is very smartly wrapped up as a murder mystery which allows all aspects to be aired.’ However, it is not a murder mystery, but a blackmailing case that leads to a suicide.
The plot revolves around Bogarde, who plays barrister, Melville Farr, who has had an ‘indiscretion’ with a certain Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery). Barrett is trying to contact Farr because he is being blackmailed, trying to protect both himself and Farr. Barrett is arrested and commits suicide in his cell. Bogarde subsequently discovers a blackmail ring that targets gay men and, at risk to his own career and marriage, seeks to bring the blackmailers to justice. As Turner wrote, the film, ‘refuses to pigeon-hole or patronise its subject, depicting homosexuality in every social class and every walk of life’ (2006 :1316), and that it is ‘a fascinating slice of social history’ (2010: 1150) and, according to Wikipedia (Victim 1961 film), the first English language film to use the term ‘homosexual’. I counted use of the word four times, the first after twenty-five minutes. The film was ‘X’ rated and banned on its initial release in the United States. It was not a major box-office success.
Otto Heller’s fine black and white photography adds notably to the film, as do images of London at that time.
The screenplay by Janet Green and John McCormick is refreshingly tight and intelligent and runs for ninety-six minutes. The acting is first-class with some major actors playing gay rolls, such as Dennis Price (who was homosexual), Nigel Stock and Norman Bird. Silvia Syms plays Bogarde’s wife.
I will provide seven memorable examples of the script where the actors refer to homosexuals, or themselves:
Detective Inspector: ‘If only these unfortunate devils had come to us in the first place.’
Police Sergeant: ‘If only they’d led ordinary lives they wouldn’t have needed to come at all.’
Detective Inspector: ‘If the law punished every abnormality we’d be kept pretty busy sergeant.’
Police Sergeant: ‘Even so Sir, this law was made for a very good reason; if it were changed other
weaknesses would follow.’
Detective Inspector: ‘I can see you’re a true Puritan Bridie!’
Police Sergeant: ‘There’s nothing wrong with that Sir.’
Detective Inspector: ‘Of course not, but there were times when that was against the law you know.’
Barman: ‘I hate their ruddy guts.’
Madge (a customer): ‘Hey!’
Barman: Don’t look at me like that.
Madge: ‘They’re just not quite normal dear. What’s it matter to you? If they had gammy legs or
something you’d feel sorry for them.’
Barman: ‘Sorry for them? Not me. It’s always excuses. Every newspaper you pick up it’s excuses ... Too much love as kids, not enough love as kids. They can’t help it, it’s part of Nature. Well, to my mind it’s a rotten part of Nature and if they try to make it legal they might as well licence every other perversion.’
Henry (a homosexual, imprisoned four times): ‘Nature played me a dirty trick. I’m going to see if I can get a few years of peace and quiet in return.’
Henry to Farr: ‘You’ve got a big position. They’ll listen to you. You ought to be able to state our case. Tell them there’s no magic cure for the way we are; certainly not behind prison bars – made to feel like a criminal, an outlaw. Do you know what I think Mr. Farr? I think Boy Barrett is well out of it.’
Sylvie (talking to her boyfriend, Frank, about Barrett): ‘Why can’t he stick with his own sort?’
Frank to Barrett: ‘It used to be witches. At least they don’t burn you.’
Calloway (Dennis Price, playing an actor): ‘I’m a born odd-man-out Farr, but I’ve never corrupted the normal. Why should I be made to live outside the law because I find love in the only way I can?’
I thought Victim was an impressive film and one that is relevant to my practice, for it exposes the societal faults and personal anguish associated with separatism in England just some fifty years ago. Maybe the film helped, in some way, to pave the way for law reform, to stop discrimination and to reduce nonsensical social ostracization based on one’s sexuality. It certainly helped to bring the issue of homosexuality into topical debate.
Turner, A. (2006) Victim. In K. Fane-Saunders (ed.) Radio Times Guide to Films: 2007 (BBC Worldwide Ltd.)
Turner, A. (2010) Time Out Film Guide 2011. J. Pym (ed.) (Time Out Guides Ltd.).
Walker, J. (ed.) (2004) Halliwell’s Film, Video and DVD Guide 2005 (HarperCollins, London).