By Henry Burt
Though very much a film of its time, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) has developed a lasting legacy for being one of the first to discuss the topic of homosexuality. Even now, more than fifty years on, it is easy to understand why it would have caused a stir in a far more conservative era – a man saying “I wanted him” of another man; the words “FARR IS QUEER” painted on a garage door; the people against homosexuality depicted as the villains. All these details were listed by the BBFC as reasons to give Victim an X rating upon initial release. Tame by today’s standards it may be, but Victim still stands out as a surprisingly liberal film for its period.
The film is carried by a fairly strong cast, though traces of melodrama remain that hark back to more classical cinema. The ensemble is led by Dirk Bogarde as homosexual barrister Melvin Farr, one of his first left-field roles before he abandoned the mainstream altogether in search of artistic merit. Bogarde was rumoured to be homosexual himself and may have taken the role for this reason but in any case, for possibly the most bankable British actor of the time to take on such a divisive role shows great bravery and integrity.
The film itself has an interesting story to tell – homosexual people being blackmailed under threat of being outed and subsequently jailed. Though the suspense of the plot is somewhat negated by the greater focus on Farr’s disintegrating marriage, it still evolves into a satisfying whodunit with a surprising twist ending. Victim is unfocused, never sure of which character to centre on – the first twenty-five minutes follow a different protagonist altogether before Farr takes centre stage – but the pervading sense of injustice that runs through the film ties the various strands of plot together.
Victim may not be one of the greatest films ever made, but it is certainly an important one. Sympathetic to the plight of homosexual people, it may have been the first film to give them a voice in cinema – another way for them to be heard as the demand for change became louder and louder. It is a film that defied odds to reach us, which is enough for me to appreciate it.
Photo credit: Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms in Victim (1961). Copyright: 1961 – AFM. Sourced via http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055597/mediaviewer/rm2718151168)
Directed by Basil Dearden
Produced by Michael Relph
Written by Janet Green and John McCormick
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms and Dennis Price