Friday, June 15, 2018

Victim [dir. Basil Dearden]

Wikipedia says Victim (1961) is the first English language film to have used the word "homosexual". It speaks volumes for the level of daring it would have taken in that period to come up with a film that treated homosexuality in a somber and sympathetic manner. Heck, it was only 6 years later that consensual sex between same gender people was no longer automatic grounds for criminal prosecution in the UK (a policeman in the film remarks that the punishment for this "offence" is similar to that for robbery with violence). Against this backdrop one understands the measured way in which the film unfolds its theme. For a good part of the beginning we are not even told why young Jack Barrett is on the run and desperate to get away from the country, mostly oblique glances and dialog that dances vague circles. Jack would rather take the sole blame for embezzling his employer's funds than reveal his reasons for doing so to the police. The film's core of cruel persecution is wrapped in a blackmail plot, where vulnerable folks are drained by a ruthless parasite frightening them with exposure of their "unnatural tendencies" - probably drawing from true events, the script also informs us that 90% of all blackmail cases arise from homosexual relationships. The homosexuals here are a sad and lonely lot, finding solace in clandestine companionships and a loose network, horrified at any suggestion of coming together to expose the villains extorting them.

Such trepidation is also manifest in the character of its lead Melville Farr (played by the dashing Dirk Bogarde). Farr is a rising barrister, due to take silk. He is also the man Barrett was desperately trying to protect. Farr has suppressed his homosexual tendencies to the extent of being in a long-time married relationship - he loves his wife (Sylvia Sims), though tellingly they have no children. He has pushed himself away from relationships with men that threatened to get intimate because he is afraid of his own desires. Farr's sexual identity is a victim not only of external society but his own guilt; he may well believe homosexuality to be a weakness or disease, even when he fights against its criminalization. But this cautious approach actually makes for a stronger drama. Bogarde's acting conveys both dignity and anguish, and is the lynchpin of the film's emotional thrust. He presents a more conflicted individual than a flaming gay character would. Bogarde would later remark, "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"

The film does make clear its horror of a society that views homosexuality as evil or perverse. The characters that speak against homosexuality are mainly the villains of the piece, although in one scene a bartender may be reflecting public opinion of the time when he suggests that a society that accepts homosexuality might as well let by "every other perversion". Farr's wife expresses her horror at his sexual orientation (of course, one sympathizes with her for his infidelity in thought, even when he is emphatic about never having been intimate with any of his 'acquaintances') but later stands by him when he resolves to take on the blackmailers even if it means coming out in public view. That although may have to do with her being impressed by his sacrificial suppression of his sexual desires at the altar of their marital love.

Basil Dearden as director (The Blue Lamp, Poole of London) brings verisimilitude with his experience in location shooting and realization of a palpable contemporary London milieu. While it may have been a tactical decision to couch the film's defense of alternate sexuality in the wrappings of a police procedural, the screenplay never seems like a contrived or awkward message piece, and its characters are more than just mouthpieces for the creators. In its chaste deliberate manner, Victim projects the message of tolerance more acceptably than an outright chest-thumping film about homosexuality may have been able to. Even with all that, it was slapped with an X-rating for its UK cinema run and initially denied a rating by the MPAA. While it's easy in hindsight to regard some of Victim's content as too timid or not sufficiently defensive of gay rights, the courage the film displayed in its time to open the closet even a crack must forever be respected.

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