Monday, 4 August 2014

Victim (1961)

Controversial when released and still absorbing viewing today, Victim was made at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and reminds us that this country has made great strides in gay rights in the last 50 years. It also helped Dirk Bogarde make the transition from matinee idol to art house darling.

When a young gay man commits suicide in his police cell, it sets off a chain of events that sees high flying (and closeted) London barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) become a victim of a pair of blackmailers. Wracked with own guilt at the death, Farr risks his career and marriage to try to bring them to justice.

Rather than resort to tired old clich├ęs of presenting gay men as deviants or limp-wristed comic relief, screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick, along with director Basil Dearden take time to build compassion and sympathy for the characters, dispelling any accusations of exploitation and avoiding heavy handed moralising. Cleverly, placing this in the familiar context of a standard crime film plot may have helped them introduce the themes to the mainstream audience of the time.

The complex character of Farr, and the dignity that Bogarde gives him, helps make this more than worthy but dull soap opera. He is driven by a sense of justice and a wish to make amends for his part in the suicide and so does not undertake his sacrifice lightly, nor does he expect a very happy conclusion to the tale. Nevertheless, there is a noticeable ambiguity in his feelings towards his wife Laura, (played by Sylvia Sims) that implies he may genuinely love her, but he could also have married her for the sake of appearances.

Laura is, unexpectedly, just as fascinating a character. Rather than just being the archetypal 60s middle class stay at home housewife, she is independent enough to get a day job working with troubled schoolchildren. She is also not naive about her husband, knowing full well that he had been in relationships with men before they had got together, something that does not change her love for him, and gives the script an emotional maturity that acknowledges that real feelings are not turned on and off like a light switch.

Some aspects of how sexuality is presented feel a little dated or patronising nowadays. This question of where Farr's attraction lies is presented as an either/or choice and, nowhere is it considered that he could be bisexual. Meanwhile, the other gay characters are depicted as helpless and passive victims of the law and the blackmailers, victims unable or unwilling to help themselves and victims who need to rescued, by Farr and the police.

The anti-gay characters, whether blackmailers or police, are one-dimensional and never really given much screen time or depth, beyond a few brief "it's not natural" style speeches. Fascinatingly, when unmasked, the blackmailers turnout to be a puritanical bigot, and a man who, with his leather jacket and slightly camp manner seems to be, the film is suggesting without ever confirming, gay

Not surprisingly, getting Victim made was not an easy process given the subject matter, which, regardless of how acceptable it may or may not have been in the eyes of society, was still illegal in the eyes of the law. The common practise at the time was for producers to submit scripts to the BBFC in order to tackle problem areas before they made it to the camera. In his book "Censored - The Story of Film Censorship in Britain", Tom Dewe Matthews tells of BBFC memos stating "the acceptance of homosexuality is too ready in this script" and after filming the censors still demanded the removal of key scenes that challenged stereotypes of gay men as upper class fops who are helpless slaves to their sexual urges. Nevertheless, Dearden managed to keep one key scene intact, where Farr admits to his wife that he got involved with the man who committed suicide because he was attracted to him. However innocuous this may seem nowadays, it was, according to Matthews, the first time that a gay man had come out in a British film.

The film would also prove to be a defining moment for its Dirk Bogarde, and although it would not completely lead to the end of lighthearted fare such as the “Doctor in...” series of films that he had become associated with, it certainly would lay the groundwork for the next phase of his career. His commitment to starring in films with controversial subject matter would see him in projects ranging from the creepy mind games of The Servant to the Nazi S&M themed The Night Porter.

It is impossible to quantify the extent to which Victim contributed to the eventual passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. Despite being the X certificate, it was reportedly a success at the UK box office, buoyed by publicity from the ensuing media coverage, and may have acted, like Farr, as a catalyst for change. However, with the liberal or at least laissez-faire, attitudes of the police depicted in the film, it may have just been reflecting the increasing acceptance and desire for change in the wider public. Either way, viewed as a social document or a very English piece of liberal agitprop, it remains a great thriller and a reminder that the "good old days" were not always good for everyone.