Made and released at a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offense in England, Victim (1961) is a film I’m surprised I have not heard more about. The story centers on a blackmailer targeting high profile, closeted Londoners, with a focus on Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) a married barrister whose past comes calling in the early stages of the film only he chooses not to answer, the consequences of which drive much of the film’s narrative. Farr must decide if he’ll risk his career and place in society to stand up for what’s right.
Given the social climate with relation to homosexuality, the film was released in 1961 with an X rating (adults only) from the BBFC. 44 years later, Victim would be resubmitted for classification and receive a PG rating from the same organization, citing the reasons, “contains mild language and sex references.” Between those 44 years it would be re-rated two additional times for video and DVD release, receiving a lesser rating each time. The reasons for the rating changes are obvious as they show a clear pattern of social acceptance, but what I found even more interesting is the correlation between Bogarde’s private life and the character he portrayed.
Bogarde was a closeted homosexual and as Roger Ebert put it in his “Great Film” write-up on Victim, “To play a homosexual in 1961 would bring an end, his agent warned him, to [the] mainstream roles [he was being offered], and make him unemployable in Hollywood just at the moment when American directors were interested in him.” He took the role and mainstream offers never did return, but how fascinating is it that in his own life he never could bring himself to “come out” as a gay man and yet, as Farr, he stood up and did just that.
I can only imagine the strength it took for Bogarde to perform the scene in which he is confronted by his wife (Sylvia Syms) and asked about the nature of his relationship with a character who takes his own life earlier in the film.
The entire film leads up to this moment and Bogarde reaches back and his performance reaches a level anyone who sees the film won’t soon forget:
“Alright, you want to know. I shall tell you. You won’t be content until you hear it will you? Until you’ve ripped it out of me! I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Can you understand â€“ because I wanted him.”
I’ve included the scene below and added a minute or so of context, but I urge you not to fast forward. Instead watch from the moment I chose to start the clip. This is passion rarely seen on today’s screen.
As someone who despises the way audiences and fans chew over every bit of personal information they can get on today’s celebrities only in an effort to chop them down, I more than agree with Ebert when he writes, “As an actor, he risked a great deal to take a crucial role at a time when it made a difference. And didn’t he anyway, through his work, tell us whatever it was about him we thought we had the right to know?”
In a 1961 interview Bogarde was asked about his decision (watch to the right) to play the role and the interviewer asks a very leading question saying, “You must feel very strongly about this subject to risk losing, possibly a large, part of your audience by appearing in such a bitterly controversial film?”
“I don’t think so, no…” Bogarde replied. “This is a marvelous part and in a film I think is tremendously important because it doesn’t pull any punches — it’s quite honest. I don’t have to use any old tricks for the fans, it’s a straightforward character performance.”
He continued, “People will go see this film, I’m quite sure, and thoroughly enjoy it or be distressed by it, but they will be moved somehow by it.”
Victim is the first of Bogarde’s films I have seen and I don’t know if his work in his other features can live up to what he did here. While he dodges his passion for the role in the interview above, to no surprise, it was clearly on display in the film and it’s large part of what gives Victim so much life.
None of this is to discount the direction of Basil Dearden and the screenplay by Janet Green and John McCormick, which focuses so intensely on the characters and never once overplays the hand. The wonderful black-and-white cinematography from Otto Heller, who also lensed Michael Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom as well as Olivier’s Richard III, gives what is essentially a social commentary and character piece a noirish feel allowing the film to both entertain and engage its audience.