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It may not seem like a controversial or even daring film by today's standards but when Victim was released in 1961, the subject of homosexuality was rarely addressed in commercial films and here was one that placed it front and center in its story about a married lawyer who risks exposure for his own sexual past when he tries to apprehend a blackmail ring that preys on closeted gay men. Unlike the often clichéd depiction of homosexuals as sexual deviants or perverts in movies, Victim took a sympathetic approach, building compassion and understanding for this marginalized group within the context of a straightforward crime thriller. Any accusations of exploitation were dispelled by the film's honest and intelligent treatment. Nevertheless, the film was still refused a seal of approval from the American Motion Picture Production Code and it proved to be a risky but rewarding career move for Dirk Bogarde in the role of Melville Farr, the closeted barrister.
Victim began as a script entitled Boy Barrett which was written by the wife-husband screenwriting team of Janet Green and John McCormick. Green had previously penned the script for Sapphire (1959), a crime drama in which a murder investigation exposes the racial bigotry and hatred in London at that time. The film, which was produced by Michael Relph and directed by Basil Dearden, received critical acclaim for its frank and unsentimental treatment of a potentially inflammatory subject presented in the guise of a genre film. As a result, Relph and Dearden decided to try a similar approach for Victim with Green and McCormick weaving a tense narrative that would also engage the viewer in a moral debate over the treatment of homosexuals in society.
Relph knew that to get the film approved by the British censors they would have to avoid any scenes or discussions that specifically addressed gay sexual relations, noting the comments of the censor board's secretary, John Trevelyan: "...to the great majority of cinema-goers homosexuality is outside their direct experience and is something which is shocking, distasteful and disgusting." In regards to this, Relph said, "What I think we want to say is that the homosexual, although subject to a psychological or glandular variation from sexual normality, is a human being subject to all the emotions of other human begins, and as deserving of our understanding. Unless he sets out to corrupt others, it is wrong for the law to pillory him because of his inversion." Relph added that Victim was "a story not of glands but of love."
The casting of an actor to play Melville Farr was crucial to the film's success and Dirk Bogarde was not the first choice. Although accounts vary as to who was actually offered the role before Bogarde, Jack Hawkins was allegedly the front runner but he rejected the script as being not "for me." James Mason was then approached (he turned it down for tax reasons regarding his English citizenship) and even Stewart Granger was considered before Dearden finally turned to Bogarde whom he'd previously worked with on The Blue Lamp (1950) and The Gentle Gunman (1952).
In his autobiography, Bogarde recalled a dinner discussion with his father and the actress Capucine [she had co-starred with Bogarde in Song Without End, 1960] over his choice of the role prior to filming. When he commented that his character was problematic, his father asked why.
"Married man with a secret passion," Bogarde explained.
"What's the problem there?"
"The passion is another bloke."
"I don't see the problem," said Capucine. "My God! You English. You think that nothing happens to you below your necks."
"And in any case," said my father settling comfortably down into his chair, "I've told him that I think he ought to do The Mayor of Casterbridge."
"But I did Victim instead, and 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, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three."
Regarding the filming of Victim, Bogarde said, "The set was closed to all visitors, the Press firmly forbidden, and the whole project was treated, at the beginning, with all the false reverence, dignity and respect usually accorded to the Crucifixion or Queen Victoria. Fortunately this nonsense was brought to a swift end by one of the chippies yelling out, "Watch yer arse, Charlie!" to a bending companion, and we settled down to work as if it was any other film. Except that this was not...Some critics complained that it was only a thriller with a message tacked on rather loosely; but the best way to persuade a patient to take his medicine is by sugaring the pill - and this was the only possible way the film could have been approached in those early days. Whatever else, it was a tremendous success, pleasing us and confounding our detractors. The countless letters of gratitude which flooded in were proof enough of that, and I had achieved what I had longed to do for so long, to be in a film which disturbed, educated, and illuminated as well as merely giving entertainment."
The film did indeed connect with countless moviegoers who felt it reflected some of their own experiences in the world. One of these viewers, future filmmaker Terence Davies, recalls the impact Victim had on him: "It was an incredibly traumatic thing for me - being gay, and it being very much against the law. That moment when Dirk is in the police station and the policeman says, "You of course knew that Barrett was a homosexual?" And the camera tracks in on Dirk and he says, "Yes, I had gathered that.' 'Homosexual' was a word that no one ever said. The word in those days was 'queer,' which was derogatory and very unpleasant. And I don't know why the gay community have taken it up now because to me it is so derogatory; because it used to be said with such hatred. And I just thought, 'And yes, so am I.'"
Almost every major film critic praised Victim. The Evening Standard noted that "At last, after years of playing paper-thin parts in paper-weight films, Dirk Bogarde has a role that not only shows what a brilliant actor he is, but what a courageous one he is too...He risks curdling the adulation of the fans." The Evening News chimed in, "Today we must salute Dirk Bogarde. Applaud him for his courage and for the revelation of previously unplumbed depths of his talent." And Time magazine wrote it "has a careful performance by Bogarde and it pursues with eloquence and conviction the case against an antiquated statute." The film also won a Best British Actor nomination for Bogarde and a Best British Screenplay nomination for Janet Green and John McCormick in the BAFTA Film Awards (Britain's version of the Academy Awards). In addition, Victim was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
For Bogarde, however, Victim marked the beginning of a new career as an actor after years of being typecast as a matinee idol for the bobbysoxer crowd. As he told interviewer Ann Guerin in 1970 on the television program "Show": "It busted the thing wonderfully open because the kids just fell away overnight like grass, not because I was playing a homosexual, because in England the word 'queer' usually means that you're not feeling very well, so they didn't get it anyway, but I did have grey temples and I was broaching my own age, playing a man about 45. I wasn't the bouncy happy doctor with a little perm in the front lock of my hair and my caps in and my left profile - every set was built for my left profile, nobody ever saw the right side of my face in something like 30 pictures. I was the Loretta Young of England. And so that all broke. The caps came out, the hair was never permed again and a different audience came." In fact, shortly after Victim, Bogarde was cast in Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), which achieved even greater acclaim than Victim and marked the beginning of a long line of critically acclaimed performances in films by directors of international renown such as John Schlesinger (Darling, 1965), Jack Clayton (Our Mother's House, 1967), Luchino Visconti (The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice, 1971), Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter, 1974), Alain Resnais (Providence, 1977), Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Despair, 1978) and Bertrand Tavernier (Daddy Nostalgie, 1990).
Producer: Michael Relph, Basil Dearden
Director: Basil Dearden
Screenplay: Janet Green, John McCormick
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Film Editing: John D. Guthridge
Art Direction: Alex Vetchinsky
Music: Philip Green
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Melville Farr), Sylvia Syms (Laura), Dennis Price (Calloway), Anthony Nicholls (Lord Fullbrook), Peter Copley (Paul Mandrake), Norman Bird (Harold Doe).
by Jeff Stafford