Sunday, 9 February 2020

Victim is a 1961 British suspense film directed by Basil Dearden and starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. / VIDEO: VICTIM - official reissue trailer (HD)

Victim is a 1961 British suspense film directed by Basil Dearden and starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. It was the first English-language film to use the word "homosexual". It premiered in the UK on 31 August 1961 and in the US the following February. On its release in the United Kingdom it proved highly controversial to the British Board of Film Censors, and in the U.S. it was refused a seal of approval from the American Motion Picture Production Code.

A successful barrister, Melville Farr has a thriving London practice. He is on course to become a Queen's Counsel and people are already talking of his being appointed a judge. He is apparently happily married to his wife, Laura.

Farr is approached by Jack "Boy" Barrett, a young working class gay man with whom Farr has a romantic friendship. Farr rebuffs the approach, thinking Barrett wants to blackmail him about their relationship. In fact, Barrett has been trying to reach Farr to appeal to him for help because he has fallen prey to blackmailers who have a picture of Farr and Barrett in a vehicle together, in which Barrett is crying with Farr's arm around him. Barrett has stolen £2,300 (£51,600 today) from his employers to pay the blackmail, is being pursued by the police, and needs Farr's financial assistance to flee the country. After Farr intentionally avoids him, Barrett is picked up by the police, who discover why he was being blackmailed. Knowing it will be only a matter of time before he is forced to reveal the details of the blackmail scheme and Farr's role, Barrett hangs himself in a police cell.

Learning the truth about Barrett, Farr takes on the blackmail ring and recruits a friend of Barrett's to identify others the blackmailers may be targeting. The friend identifies a barber who is also being blackmailed, but the barber refuses to identify his tormentors. When one of the blackmailers visits the barber and begins to destroy his shop, he suffers a heart attack. Near death, he phones Farr's house and leaves a mumbled message naming another victim of the blackmailers.

Farr contacts this victim, a famous actor, but the actor refuses to help him, preferring to pay the blackmailers to keep his sexuality secret. Laura finds out about Barrett's suicide and confronts her husband. After a heated argument, during which Farr maintains that he has kept the promise he made to Laura when they married that he would no longer indulge his homosexual attraction, Laura decides that Farr has betrayed that promise in having a relationship with Barrett and decides to leave him.

The blackmailers vandalise Farr's Chiswick property, painting "FARR IS QUEER" on his garage door. Farr resolves to help the police catch them and promises to give evidence in court, despite knowing that the ensuing press coverage will certainly destroy his career. The blackmailers are identified and arrested. Farr tells Laura to leave before the ugliness of the trial, but that he will welcome her return afterward. She tells him that she believes she has found the strength to return to him. Farr burns the suggestive photograph of him and Barrett.

Homosexual acts between males were illegal in England and Wales until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which implemented the recommendations of the Wolfenden report published a decade earlier. The fact that willing participants in consensual homosexual acts could be prosecuted made them vulnerable to entrapment, and the criminalisation of homosexuality was known as the "blackmailer's charter". Homosexuals were prosecuted and tabloid newspapers covered the court proceedings. By 1960, however, the police demonstrated little enthusiasm for prosecuting homosexual relations. There was an inclination to "turn a blind eye" to homosexuality, because there was a feeling that the legal code violated basic liberties. However, public opprobrium, even in the absence of criminal prosecution, continued to require homosexuals to keep their identity secret and made them vulnerable to blackmail. The film treats homosexuality in a non-sensationalised manner.

Scriptwriter Janet Green had previously collaborated with Basil Dearden on a British "social problem" film, Sapphire, which had dealt with racism against Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. After reading the Wolfenden report and, knowing of several high-profile prosecutions of gay men, she became a keen supporter of homosexual law reform. She wrote the screenplay with her husband John McCormick. Despite its then controversial subject, it was in other respects quite conventional in being quite chaste. Farr has not had sex with Barrett, nor with the man he loved at university. The audience is allowed just one glimpse of a photo of two heads: Farr and Barrett seen from the obverse of the print, and the screenplay underscores the fact that only Barrett's tears suggest anything untoward, along with the breaking of social taboos in that they are different classes and far apart in age. Also, the film promises that Farr and Laura will remain united and faithful to one another.[5] As Pauline Kael wrote:

The hero of the film is a man who has never given way to his homosexual impulses; he has fought them–that's part of his heroism. Maybe that's why he seems such a stuffy stock figure of a hero... The dreadful irony involved is that Dirk Bogarde looks so pained, so anguished from the self-sacrifice of repressing his homosexuality that the film seems to give rather a black eye to heterosexual life.

The language the screenplay used to describe its controversial subject attracted comment. It used "the familiar colloquial terms", wrote one reviewer without specifying them, even as he referred to "homosexuality", "the abnormality", and "the condition". The term "queer"–then a pejorative term not yet adopted by advocates for LGBT rights–is used several times in the film. "FARR IS QUEER" is painted on Farr's garage door. Farr and other characters use the term. The more polite "invert" appears as well.

When the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden first approached Bogarde, several actors had already turned down the role, including Jack Hawkins, James Mason, and Stewart Granger. In 1960, Bogarde was 39 and just about the most popular actor in British films. He had spent fourteen years being cast as a matinée idol by The Rank Organisation. He had proven himself playing war heroes (The Sea Shall Not Have Them; Ill Met by Moonlight); he was the star of the hugely successful Doctor film series; and he was a reliable romantic lead in films like A Tale of Two Cities. He was flirting with a larger, Hollywood career by playing Liszt in Song Without End. British audiences had named him their favourite British film star for years. Bogarde was suspected to be homosexual, lived in the same house as his business manager, Anthony Forwood, and was compelled to be seen occasionally in public with attractive young women. He seems not to have hesitated to accept the role of Farr, a married lawyer with a homosexual past that he has not quite put behind him. Bogarde himself wrote the scene in which Farr admits to his wife that he is gay and has continued to be attracted to other men despite his earlier assurances to the contrary.[9] In his first independent film project in his 34th film, he said in 1965, "For the first time I was playing my own age. At Rank, the fixed rule was that I had to look pretty. Victim ended all that nonsense." He wrote years later in his autobiography that his father had suggested he do The Mayor of Casterbridge, "But I did Victim instead, ... playing the barrister with the loving wife, a loyal housekeeper, devoted secretary and the Secret Passion. It was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life. It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three."

Similarly, though several actresses had turned down the role, Sylvia Syms readily accepted the part of Laura, married at age 19 and childless, which required her to be at times frustrated and self-assertive and at others heroically sympathetic. Other gay cast members included Dennis Price and Hilton Edwards.

Syms later recalled that filming had to be completed in just ten days. Shooting locations included The Salisbury, a pub on St Martin's Lane in the Covent Garden area of London. The project was originally entitled Boy Barrett and the name changed to Victim late in production. Relph and Dearden acknowledged that the film was designed to be "an open protest against Britain's law that being a homosexual is a criminal act".

Victim review – groundbreaking gay thriller given timely rerelease
5 / 5 stars5 out of 5 stars.   
Dirk Bogarde’s elegant, sensitive portrayal of a man coming to terms with being gay played a vital role in the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality

Peter Bradshaw
Thu 20 Jul 2017 15.30 BSTLast modified on Mon 3 Dec 2018 15.20 GMT

Basil Dearden’s icily brilliant mystery thriller Victim from 1961 is now rereleased in cinemas, linked to the Gross Indecency season at BFI Southbank, London. Dirk Bogarde is the barrister Melville Farr, haunted by his (unconsummated) gay desires – this in an era when gay sex was illegal – and threatened by a sinister blackmail ring. The other blackmail victims include a stage star played by Dennis Price, who was himself a gay man in that shabby, hypocritical age. In the bankruptcy court, Price claimed his money worries stemmed from gambling, though paying off blackmailers was another possible explanation.

Modern LGBT audiences may not care for this film’s title, or its occasional bien-pensant air of straight liberal concern for a psycho-medical “problem”. But the movie played a vital part in the decriminalisation that came with the  in 1967.

Bogarde is gaunt, sensitive, elegant. His heartbreakingly trusting young wife Laura is played by Sylvia Sims: the film leaves it to us to notice that she has a job teaching disadvantaged children, but that they have no children of their own. Dearden’s film conjures up the skin-crawlingly nasty and whispery world of blackmail in the tatty streets of London’s West End. The film has hints of  and , and I have long had the theory that the elliptical language of gay pickups in an age of state-sanctioned homophobia is something that inspired ’s language of enigmatic menace.

The drum-tight drama has a couple of smart twists: its co-writer is Janet Green, who scripted Midnight Lace. Bogarde has a kind of darkly troubled poise that is utterly of its time. I wonder if Hugh Grant might study it as he prepares to play Jeremy Thorpe in Stephen Frears’ forthcoming TV play A Very English Scandal.

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