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Victim (1961)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Victim (1961)
35mm, black and white, 95 mins
DirectorBasil Dearden
Production CompanyParkway Films
 Allied Film Makers
ProducerMichael Relph
ScreenplayJanet Green
 John McCormick
CinematographyOtto Heller

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Melville Farr); Sylvia Syms (Laura Farr); Peter McEnery (Jack 'Boy' Barrett); Eddy Stone (Donald Churchill); Margaret Diamond (Miss Benham)

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When a young homosexual, 'Boy' Barrett, commits suicide in his police cell, barrister Melville Farr, motivated by his own guilt, risks his successful career and his marriage to break a sinister blackmail ring.

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Victim was one of the series of postwar 'social problem' films credited to the director/producer partnership of Dearden and Relph, tackling such subjects as delinquency (The Violent Playground, 1958), racism (Sapphire, 1959) and East End slums (A Place to Go, 1963). The problem here is not homosexuality as such, but the 'blackmailer's charter' presented by the law as it then stood. The first British film to deal explicitly with homosexuality, Victim arrived in the wake of the public debate following the publication of 1957's Wolfenden report. Despite the Wolfenden recommendations, homosexuality remained an imprisonable offence until 1967.

For Dirk Bogarde, who signed on after the first choice had declined, Victim was a brave decision, given rumours about his own homosexuality (which he never acknowledged during his lifetime), but one that paid dividends, marking the closing of his 'idol of the Odeons' period, and the beginning of a more serious phase which drew him increasingly towards the European art cinema.

Bogarde's performance lifts Victim above the hand-wringing liberalism that marred Sapphire, bringing dignity and genuine pathos to the role of Melville Farr, who sacrifices his marriage and a promising legal career to take on the blackmailers, and one of the film's most powerful scenes, in which Farr is confronted by his wife, was added at Bogarde's insistence. Not surprisingly, however, the film opts for a tone of concerned sympathy rather than righteous advocacy for its 'invert' characters, stressing their powerlessness in the face of both their instincts ("tell them there's no magic cure for how we are" pleads barber Henry to Farr) and the blackmailers' ruthlessness; with the exception of Farr, the homosexual characters are essentially passive - 'little people', in the words of the investigating police chief, who are too afraid to come forward.

Despite this patronising approach, however, the narrative includes two key ambiguities, which raise - without ever answering - intriguing questions. First, while the blackmailer is an archetype of undisguised moralist disgust, her leather-jacketed, motorcycling male accomplice is slyly coded as gay (though this might have been missed by most contemporary audiences). Second, the film invests Farr with a degree of moral rectitude by stressing that he has not acted out his desires. But this very repression is explicitly blamed for the suicide of a previous partner some years previously; similarly, it is Farr's guilt over his role in the suicide of the unfortunate 'Boy' Barrett that begins his crusade.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. The police station (2:38)
2. Mr Henry (2:37)
3. Revelations (4:40)
4. Loyalty (1:51)
Original poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Bogarde, Dirk (1921-1999)
Dearden, Basil (1911-1971)
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Relph, Michael (1915-2004)
Syms, Sylvia (1934-)
Social Problem Films