A landmark work in the queer canon arrives on DVD
Basil Dearden’s excellent thriller Victim was released in 1961, during roughly the same time as the ascension of Britain’s “angry young men” – playwrights like John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) who rejected clichés of fussy, stuffy Britannia in favor of a more edgy, neorealist-inflected, working-class image. And Victim, with its location shooting, noirish lighting, and doomed characters has more than a little of the “angry young man” feel.
But there’s another kind of young man in the pop-culture mindset: the “sad young man,” the inward-turning, marginalized, hunted and haunted homosexual of the pre-Stonewall era, as discussed by Richard Dyer and others. Victim beautifully dovetails these tropes in what star Dirk Bogarde too-humbly called a “modest, tight, neat little thriller” about a ring of blackmailers extorting money from closeted queers.
Victim is on one level a classic “liberal problem picture,” attempting to use cinema to explore a pressing issue of the day. But unlike most such films, this one is so intricately plotted and well acted that the topical elements never overtake the drama. This is no small accomplishment given the film’s clear polemical objective of calling attention to the injustice of jailing gay men simply for being gay.
In the opening scene, a handsome, nervous-looking young man looks down from a steel girder high above the ground to see a police car arriving. He flees in desperation. A series of encounters follow between this character, Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery), and a variety of equally nervous other men, some older, some younger, but all seemingly tortured by some secret the film keeps barely, tantalizingly out of the viewer’s reach.
Eventually it all comes clear. It seems that Barrett (lovingly called “Boy Barrett” in the queer underground) has embezzled money from his company to pay blackmailers who know he’s gay, and the company has put the police on him. But typical of the film’s alternating visions of cruelty and self-sacrifice, prole Barrett is protecting a much bigger target, wealthy barrister Melville Farr (Bogarde), with whom he was in love. Farr mistakenly interprets Barrett’s desperate phone calls as blackmail attempts, inadvertently triggering the young man’s suicide in a jail cell. The remainder of the film is a labyrinthine exploration of a particular corner of London’s criminal underground – unknown blackmailers and the gay men they victimize. As Farr himself is closed in on by the blackmailers, he must decide whether to expose them and ruin his career (and possibly his marriage) in the process, or continue to pay extortion “for a kind of security” that he knows will keep the whole rotten system going.
Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of the increasingly beleaguered barrister is not only a knockout performance in itself but represented a major shift for the actor, who took the role after it was turned down by most of Britain’s major stars as too controversial. Bogarde is a restrained, sometimes remote, but enormously commanding actor, and when he breaks down, as he does a couple of times in Victim, the effect is bracing. With consummate skill he limns the dilemma of a principled man whose world may collapse because of what might seem, in another time and place, a simple indiscretion. Sylvia Syms provides solid support as the equally stressed wife.
Victim also presents a gallery of memorable minor characters. One of them, an aging hairdresser, Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack) has a brilliant scene in which, seeming to withdraw into a more peaceful inner world, he movingly describes his terror of going back to prison for his lifestyle: “I’ve made up my mind to be more ‘sensible,’ as the prison doctor used to say. I don’t care how lonely, but sensible.” Typical of the film’s unflinching portrayal of uncertain lives in which violence can occur at any moment, Henry is brutalized shortly thereafter by another memorable character, the blackmailer, a creepy, sexy, smirking teddy boy in black goggles and black leather. (Another sign of the film’s intelligence are its hints that hunky teddy boy may be queer himself, the essence of the leering self-hating homo.)
It’s a tribute to scriptwriters Janet Green and John McCormick, director Basil Dearden, and an exceptionally good cast that the film (reputedly the first in Britain to use the word “homosexual”) retains much of its punch today, despite the (mostly) disappearance of “homosexual blackmail” and the reform of antigay laws that followed in Britain a few years later.