I recently saw the 1961 British film Victim, starring one of my favorite actors, Dirk Bogarde. Dirk plays the highly successful barrister, Melville Farr, expected by his staff to take silk very soon (that is, become an eminent Queen’s Counsel, with a judgeship in his bright future as well). We see Farr in his chambers and outside the Old Bailey courtroom at various points and can readily see that he is a smooth barrister who can be expected to robustly defend his client’s interests, as we barristers like to say. Pity the poor witness, we are made to feel, who keeps important information from Farr – he will persevere until the truth topples out.
In this social message film, director Basil Dearden drops several hints early on, however, that the days of effortlessly climbing the legal ladder may soon be tested for this man for all seasons. Scenes from legal chambers are crosscut with the very different world of a young man in serious trouble with some most unsavoury individuals. Further, the young man, Boy Barrett, is alarmed upon hearing that the police want him for questioning and makes increasingly desperate efforts to decamp from London in order that he might lay low. Victim goes on to reveal the deepening tragedy brought about by a brief relationship that Farr and Barrett had. That most taboo subject for Englishmen is then carefully but unflinchingly introduced – homosexuality. We learn that Barrett is a homosexual and that Farr, despite being married, had apparently yielded to the homosexual impulses. Barrett has been mercilessly hounded by blackmailers who have developed a most lucrative business – spying on gay men and then taking advantage of the fact that all homosexual behaviour constitutes a crime – to blackmail and threaten ruin to all those whose sexual orientation they have uncovered. Beneath the surface lay untold dangers for those who didn’t fit the sexual norms of the intolerant, blinkered majority of 1950s England.
A “social message” film like this one has its built-in limitations and lacks the qualities of personal meditation and voice that the greatest films possess. Nonetheless within the confines of the genre, this film stands out as a genuine cri de coeur by individuals concerned about the glaring discrimination and injustice faced by homosexuals. Dirk Bogarde was himself a gay man, although not one who was “out of the closet” at the time the film was released. He obviously took on this project on the basis that the story and the wider theme really needed to be confronted in film. He turns in a dignified and quietly intense performance as a lawyer willing to put his own career on the line in his quest to ensure that Boy Barrett’s death was not entirely in vain. The stakes are captured neatly in a scene when Farr and his wife Laura return home in their car and see graffiti emblazoned across their garage door – “Farr is Queer.”
Melvin Farr emerges as a genuine hero, tackling a serious problem that corroded British society and its justice system. In doing so, he must move beyond the world of the courts that he is familiar with and the thriller plot sends him on a journey to an underworld where the rules operate rather differently. The moral code of those close to Farr get severely tested as the search for the blackmailers raises the stakes. Interesting dilemmas get debated. For instance, Laura is confronted with a series of arguments by her brother, a barrister. He states that he has both defended and prosecuted homosexuals and to be caught up with them in any way leads to trouble and social disgrace. He asks her how Melvin, on track to become a High Court Judge, could possibly sit in judgment on individuals who will be coming before him for the “crime” of homosexuality.
In his excellent book Victim (BFI Film Classics), John Coldstream takes us through each stage of the production of this landmark film and includes a section on the initial reaction to the film around the globe. I was quite taken by the report from Italy, as follows:
[Viewers were] surprised because few Continentals can credit the British law with being so hypocritical, and a number of Italian critics failed to understand that homosexuals in Britain are punished for no other reason than that they exercise a free choice in sex, just as anyone would in picking the drink they fancy, or the food they would prefer to eat or … At least the Italians have a sense of humour about it.
The film was daringly explicit for its time in its frank exploration of the deficiencies in the law. Implicitly, Victim operates as a plea for a more humane and rational legal system, one that does not imprison all homosexuals who act on their feelings inside a lawless subculture where they can be victimized again and again. Crisp and telling dialogue is employed to confidently convey this untenable situation. The police chief explains to Farr, for example, that 90 percent of incidences of blackmail were thought to involve homosexuality and that the law criminalizing this behavior was said to be the “blackmailer’s charter.” “Is that how you feel about it?” asks the crusading barrister. “I am a policeman sir, I don’t have feelings” comes the terse response.
Victim was truly a landmark film and, together with the famous Wolfenden Report on Homosexuality and Prostitution, played a critical role in the 1967 reform which decriminalized homosexual acts, in private, between consenting adults.