GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Home Vision Entertainment/
Unrated, 100 minutes
Were The Days
Gay-themed films, once rare, were often big political statements. This is especially true of Victim, a 1961 British thriller that caused a storm of controversy on its release. This was a film which actually advocated acceptance and exposed how gays needed to remain invisible if they wished to survive. Its recent debut on DVD begs a second look at this forgotten classic.
To fully understand Victim's significance, one must place it in the context of its time. Homosexual acts were illegal. Police harassment had slowed, but that didn't stop blackmailers from having a field day. 90% of all blackmail cases had a queer bent, and the victims couldn't go to the authorities for help.
Victim tells the story of a respected barrister named Melvin Farr (Dirk Bogarde). He is blessed with a happy marriage and a thriving practice. The newspapers trumpet his impending appointment to a high court bench. But Farr has a few skeletons in his closet that could annihilate his spotless career.
A young man named Barrett is on the run in the first reel. Desperate, he phones Farr for help but is rebuffed. When Barrett hangs himself in a police cell, Farr is devastated to learn that Barrett did this to protect him. Barrett was being blackmailed. The blackmailers have a photograph of Farr consoling Barrett in his car, and the young man committed suicide to guard the reputation of the man he loved. Guilt-ridden, Farr risks everything to bring the criminals to justice himself.
Though not a great film, Victim is a groundbreaking, yet entertaining, political tract disguised as a crime drama. Many feel that it helped change public opinion and led to the criminal code's repeal a few years later. Certain plot elements might cause modern gay audiences to groan but there is also much to commend. For starters, this was the first time that a gay hero ever appeared onscreen. The only major film to previously deal openly with homosexuality was Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (although the H word went unspoken) and in that one the queer was devoured by cannibalistic third world rent boys.
Compromises were made so the hero would be acceptable to a mass audience, but nothing dishonest wound up onscreen. Farr is a pillar of society who left his gay past behind. Great pains are made to establish that Farr did not have a sexual relationship with Barrett. Farr only befriended the lad and gave him rides home. When Barrett fell in love with Farr, the renowned public figure ended their friendship, leaving his "sainthood" intact. Most significantly, Farr is played by Dirk Bogarde who was England's leading matinee idol. It was a brave step for Bogarde, who was gay himself, but he desired to play more challenging roles. Bogarde's involvement was not unlike the casting of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia thirty years later. Cast a beloved star in a controversial role and the audience approval doubles.
Victim of course has it both ways. Homosexuals are condemned by several characters but one well-meaning figure remarks that being homosexual is "punishment enough," why do they have to be persecuted too? Most of the ruder comments are uttered by low-lifes. A bartender who doesn't mind taking money from the queers who frequent his tavern nonetheless mocks them behind their backs. One of the blackmailers, a woman who resembles an old grade school teacher who probably has never gotten laid in her life, makes the most damning moral judgments. (Actually, her words are not unlike recent comments by Pat Robertson.)
Self-loathing gays abound but this is an honest representation for its day. One lonely man laments that "nature played me a dirty trick" and shocks Farr by declaring that Barrett is better off dead. When Farr meets a group of blackmail victims, they beg him to leave them alone. Because their fear of exposure is greater, they would rather pay the extortion money to buy a little peace.
Victim is important because it acknowledged society's unfair treatment of homosexuals and made it visible for the marquee crowd. Though perhaps a bit dated, Victim is nicely executed. The gritty black and white photography is typical film noir, as is the sometimes melodramatic music. The opening scenes of Barrett fleeing both the blackmailers and the police are suspenseful, and the taboo subject matter is tackled without sensationalism. Bogarde's portrayal of Farr embodies all his torments and conflicts. He is a man who courts respectability but, as he tells his shattered wife, he "wanted" Barrett. A few of the blackmail victims are effeminate but not offensive stereotypes. Refreshingly, Barrett is a piece of rough trade who would have no trouble passing as straight. In a movie that is layered with shades of gray, it is implied that the chief blackmailer might also be gay, making him a monster like Roy Cohn who preyed upon his own.
Most critics, especially in America, condemned the movie for daring to show compassion to "degenerates." Nevertheless, Victim was a quantum leap forward in 1961 and helped pave the way (slow as it was in coming) to today's wealth of gay films.