Thursday, February 10, 2011

Film Review--Victim (1961)

Our next film in Basil Dearden’s London Underground is Victim, starring the great Dirk Bogarde, one of my favorite character actors. Dearden returns here to what succeeded with Sapphire: a screed against a strongly felt social problem. This time, he tackles bigotry against the gay community, specifically the laws on the books that made homosexuality illegal. Like Sapphire, Victim handles the issue by wrapping it in a mystery, but much more loosely here in favor of a more direct approach.

Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a London barrister with a loving family and a successful practice. He’s also in the closet, forced to deny his true self for fear of arrest and losing everything he holds dear. That changes, though, when members of the gay community from across the city begin receiving blackmail letters along with evidence of their “crimes.” When it hits close to home, Farr realizes that he must risk everything by using his clout to discover who’s responsible. The trouble is that most of the victims would rather pay the money than have their secret revealed, so it becomes his sole responsibility to make the sacrifice.

The impact of Victim comes less from the plot than from the overall attitude of the film. This is 1961; openly gay characters were virtually unheard of in film and, the rare time they do appear, they are sniveling, perverted villains. Dearden, who had denounced the laws publicly, not only recognizes homosexuality as an existing, viable way to be, he completely condones it. We so rarely see this attitude in film even today, let alone fifty years ago, that it is much more than refreshing to see Dearden take such a position, it’s downright shocking.

Though it takes a bolder stance than Sapphire, Victim is much less preachy, simply because the story is more artfully told. It doesn’t look as pretty as the earlier films and has a much stagier feel, but between a stronger script and Bogarde’s incredible lead performance, Victim is a great piece of work. Bogarde squeezes every ounce of emotion and conflict out of his character. As a barrister, he needs to stay on the right side of the law and, as a husband, he wants to satisfy his wife’s needs, but at a certain point he can no longer deny who he really is. This sentiment is repeated over and over, hammering home the normalcy of homosexuality. Over the course of the film, Farr’s coming to terms with himself runs in concert with his pursuit of the blackmailers; he summons the same courage to deal with both. When we finally discover the culprits, it suggests that the mainstream public is as much at fault for the practical enforcement of the laws as the bureaucracy that wrote them. Dearden rarely shows subtlety, but it is an intelligent and emotional film with its heart firmly in the right place.

While Victim was successful in England, its content could not escape an X rating. That was far less detrimental to a film’s audience as it is now, but still damaging. Over here, though, the film board would not allow it until all use of the word “homosexual” and all its variants had been stricken from the film. Really, that’s a lot to cut, and I can’t imagine how it was replaced to make sense. In their effort to pull the teeth out of the film, the effectively banned it and it became a forgotten relic in this country. The only mention I’ve ever previously seen for it is in The Celluloid Closet, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary on the history of gay filmmaking. It’s a sad fate for such a great film, one from which we could still stand take lessons. Rarely will you see such an open attitude in film outside of LGBT cinema; the mainstream still has a long way to go.

Next, our final film in the collection, a jazzy little diversion called All Night Long.