How a brave British movie struck a blow for gay rights
In 1957, the British government commissioned the Wolfenden Report. This document criticized 1885's Criminal Offences Act, which outlawed homosexuality. Wolfenden claimed that "homosexuality can no longer legitimately be regarded as a disease" and recommended decriminalization. The report capped a decade of ferocious debate over gay rights in the UK, inspiring a remarkable film.
Bigotry and Cold War paranoia conflated homosexuality with Communism - cemented by Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess's 1952 defection to the USSR. This inspired a crackdown, with police arresting 2,500 gays and lesbians annually. Fear of arrest inspired criminals to blackmail gays. Even after 1957, conservative politicians resisted change: Lord Hailsham compared homosexuality to heroin addiction. The debate seeped into films like The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960): moviegoers conflated Wilde with actor John Gielgud, arrested in 1953, or scientist Alan Turing, driven to suicide.
Janet Green crafted a screenplay around this "psychological terrorism." Initially entitled "Boy Barrett," it depicted a barrister, Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), who's shocked when an ex-lover (Peter McEnery) commits suicide. Married and publicly acclaimed, Farr is targeted by blackmailers who threaten to out him. Heedless of his reputation, Farr seeks help from police and London's gay community to find the perpetrators.
Green presented her script, retitled Victim, to producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden. These three collaborated on social dramas disguised as genre films. Sapphire (1959), for instance, probed racial tensions through a whodunnit structure. The League of Gentlemen (1960) is a heist movie featuring disgraced veterans who felt betrayed by society. Among them was Kieron Moore playing a gay soldier discharged for indecency.
Victim's producers knew they courted controversy. Surprisingly, censor John Trevelyan did not object to the content. However, he warned that moviegoers considered homosexuality "shocking, distasteful and disgusting." Michael Relph responded that gays are "human being(s) subject to the emotions of all human beings." Dirk Bogarde agreed: "We either make a movie about queers or we don't."
The matinee hero of Doctor in the House (1954) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957), Bogarde "longed... to be in a film which disturbed, educated and illuminated." Taking a part stars like Jack Hawkins and James Mason had declined enhanced the appeal. Bogarde's agent worried Victim might damage his career. Bogarde responded "you can't go on making films just to please your fans." Indeed, Victim led Bogarde to a series of challenging art house roles: The Servant (1963), Darling (1965) Death in Venice (1971).
Yet Victim had more personal resonance. Bogarde was gay himself, living with actor-manager Tony Forwood for years. Bogarde rewrote much of Victim's dialogue: among other edits, he demanded Dearden use "homosexual" in place of "inverts." Costar Sylvia Sims said Bogarde "was frightened of those emotions...but wanted to play them with great truth."
Sims and Bogarde share Victim's most powerful scene, which Bogarde also wrote. After Barrett's suicide, Farr's wife Laura confronts him about their relationship. Laura knows of Farr's sexuality, but both are convinced it was youthful indiscretion. Yet Farr, with great anguish, admits that he "wanted" Barrett - that marrying, or remaining in the closet, never changed his identity. Startlingly frank, pained yet human, it's a remarkable scene.
Yet Farr won't be cowed. Laura struggles to support him, uneasy about her position: "I'm not a life jacket, for God's sake!" London's gay community is reluctant to help, fearing their own exposure. And soon Farr confronts the lead blackmailer (Derren Nesbitt), a leather-clad creep who paints "Farr is Queer" on Farr's garage. But Farr risks everything to bring Barrett's killers to justice, engaging hero rather than tortured neurotic or depraved criminal.
Besides its hero, Victim shows a gay community. Dennis Price plays an actor-playwright modeled on Noel Coward; Norman Bird, a vindictive bookseller; Charles Lloyd-Pack, a hairdresser with a weak heart. There's even a couple (Hilton Edwards and David Evans) who indulge in swindling! They're a collage of vivid personalities, some campy, others straight-laced, all credible characters. Victim also considers heterosexual responses, from the tolerant police chief (John Barrie) to a bigoted bartender (Frank Pettitt).
Yet Victim isn't just a message movie. Dearden and Green make smart use of its thriller structure, misdirecting the audience with minor characters and red herrings. Dearden's crisp pacing and noir-like direction provides a claustrophobic feel, cultivating fear through whispered conversations or Nesbitt's violent thug. While Barrie's policeman denounces the "blackmailer's charter," speechmaking's relegated to the sidelines.
Later critics attacked Victim as "antiquated as a Victorian sex manual." Today it indeed seems tame and compromised. Farr equivocates over his sexuality and ultimately accepts his marriage (though surely his affection for Laura makes this understandable). There's no intimacy between gay characters, though how explicit could a 1961 film be? Victim was the first movie to use "homosexual", a remarkable enough achievement.
Compare Victim to Hollywood contemporaries. William Wyler's The Children's Hour (1961) has Shirley Maclaine realizing she loves Audrey Hepburn, then hanging herself. Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962) sees Senator Don Murray opting for suicide after opponents blackmail him. Rod Steiger's The Sergeant (1968) chooses death after John Phillip Law spurns him. Sadly, suicide was and remains a serious issue for the LGBT community. But Classic Hollywood paints suicide as the only response, with no hope for normalcy.
With its assertive hero and hopeful conclusion, Victim made a difference. According to John Coldstream, British support for decriminalization increased from 48 percent to 63 percent. Gay men and women found comfort in its message: Peter McEnery received fan letters announcing "We all thank you!" And future director Terence Davies said that seeing Victim as a teenager assured him that he wasn't alone.
In 1967, Lord Arran introduced legislation repealing the Criminal Offences Act. He wrote Dirk Bogarde about Victim, praising him for "your courage in undertaking this difficult and potentially damaging part." When Bogarde protested, Lord Arran insisted that "we've both done our bit" to decriminalize homosexuality. He mused that "it is comforting to think that perhaps a million men are no longer living fear."
Few movies match Victim's legacy. Many films critique society; how many actually change it?
Note: Sources include John Coldstream's Dirk Bogarde: The Authorized Biography (2004) and Victim: BFI Film Classics (2011), along with Bogarde's Snakes and Ladders (1978) and Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet (1981). Thanks to Barbara of the Official Dirk Bogarde Website for encouragement, and A Certain Cinema for use of several images.