In 1957 the Wolfenden Report recommended that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence". However, it would not be until 1967 that homosexuality was decriminalised.
In the intervening years it remained very much a prosecutable and imprisonable offence and Basil Dearden's 1961 film portrays the great fear and threat to which gay man were susceptible. In particular, the threat of blackmail.
Victim tells the story of a highly successful barrister, Melvin Farr (Dirk Bogarde) who is tipped for silk and is being talked of as a future judge. He lives in apparent domestic contentment with his wife Laura (Sylvia Syms).
However, Farr has a history about to catch up with him when he's approached by the desperate "Boy" Barrett (Peter McEnery), a victim of blackmail. This is a a younger man with whom Farr has had an emotional but not sexual relationship. Farr rejects his appeal and the boy subsequently hangs himself in a police cell.
Farr is now in the sight of the blackmailers and he himself becomes another of their victims. He's forced to admit the situation to his wife and he must face the possibility of losing both his career and marriage.
Victim tells two stories. The first is a conventional thriller revolving around the blackmail of a group of homosexuals in 1960s London. The second, and more controversial storyline, involves a successful barrister as a gay man trapped in a straight marriage.
While there are aspects of the film which today seem a little dated – tightly held close-ups, keyhole lighting, trench coated detectives and the like – it was a ground-breaking film for its time treating as it does the plight of criminalised homosexuals with understanding and humanity.
It's core strength is a taut script by Janet Green & John McCormick. The characters they depict are seldom caricatures, while in the domestic storyline any histrionics are largely muted by a an overwhelming sense of sadness.
This is a portrait of a very British marriage - bright on the outside - dying on the inside and it’s played superbly by Bogarde and Sylvia Sym.
It’s very much Bogarde’s film though it wasn’t written with him in mind at all. The character of Farr was imagined to be an older man, however, those that were approached including Jack Hawkins, James Mason and Stewart Granger were either ‘unavailable’ or possibly shy of the subject matter. Bogarde, though, was an actor who grew bored easily and was tiring of the light comedy roles he was obliged to undertake as part of his Rank contract. Accepting the role of Farr in Victim, while a very big risk, offered him an unmissable opportunity to transform his career. That he was a heavily closeted homosexual himself - never coming out in his own lifetime - was probably an added attraction.
With Victim he could sail mightily close to the wind. Still hoodwinking his fans but able covertly to endorse the message of the film with his box office appeal, and it is said, contributing dialogue for his key scenes.
With this one performance he would successfully put his matinee idol image behind him and recast himself as a serious actor with the likes of The Servant (Joseph Losey 1963), Darling (John Schlessinger 1965) and King & Country (Joseph Losey 1964) to follow.
The Salisbury: - Much of the film takes place in and around The Salisbury public house in St.Martins Lane. Frequented mainly by theatrical folk it became known as a gay drinking hole long before there would be anything you could call a gay pub, or a 'scene' for that matter. It's remarkable for its mirrored interior and ornate, gilded lamps though these days it is wholly ungay and the haunt only of overcharged tourists.
Hilton Edwards: One of the supporting actors in Victim is Hilton Edwards who was the life partner of actor & director, Michael MacLiammoir. Together they managed Dublin's famed Gate Theatre company and for decades they were about Ireland's only acknowledgement that there was ever such a thing as a homosexual. Known in the city as 'The Boys', it was not uncommon for them to be seen striding down O'Connell Street, arm in arm, MacLiammoir invariably sporting a little light foundation on the cheeks. SM/LG
Victim is available as a DVD released by Home Vision Entertainment and can be purchased online and at all good retail outlets.