It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.” ~Dirk Bogarde, Actor, c 1988.
When a gay man commits suicide a righteous barrister (Dick Bogarde) attempts to bring his blackmailers to justice. He knows in doing so he risks exposing his own sexuality. Victim was the first English language film to use the word homosexual. The script refuses to demonize its gay characters. Instead it aims its anger at the anti-gay laws of the time. The blackmail targets are presented as plain folks who deserve better treatment. The noir-ish elements feel tame today, despite the gorgeous black and white. The excitement comes from the campy blackmailers, the barristers’ intense wife and the barrister himself. Bogarde’s incredible performance is the main reason to watch the film in 2019. Another actor might have made the man pitiful or self-loathing. Bogarde brings steely strength, repressed rage and an undercurrent of eroticism. He is no victim.
Want to learn more? Then read my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: A Warning
Scene 1: Round the Town
Barrett (A construction worker): I need to warn my three exes that I’m being blackmailed.
Farr (A successful barrister): Never call me again.
Lady Book Store Clerk: My boss doesn’t want to talk to you.
Car Salesman: Never come here again.
Police: Barrett you’re under arrest for theft.
Scene 2: Police Station
Barrett: I stole to pay off my blackmailers. They knew I was gay.
Woke Inspector: Relax. I’m cool with the gays. Who else were they blackmailing?
Barrett: I’ll never tell. (Kills himself)
Farr: I could have saved Barrett’s life. I’m filled with British remorse.
Barrett’s friend: The blackmailer sent a photo of you and Barrett.
Farr: Having sex?
Barrett’s friend: Oh good heavens no. The movie censors won’t allow that. It’s just a photo of you hugging. But he loved you too much to give it to the police.
Farr: I’ll catch those blackmailers. Even if it ruins me!
Act Two: Investigation
Scene 3: Round the Town:
Farr: Who’s been blackmailing you!
Hairdresser: I won’t tell! I’m too old for prison! (Dies of a heart attack.)
Famous Actor: I won’t tell! My career will be ruined!
British Lord: I’d rather pay off the blackmailers than fight them. British law would send me to jail.
Butler: You’re making it worse Farr. We know Barrett wasn’t your first! Your college boyfriend killed himself too!
(Farr punches the Butler).
Farr: People are dead.
British Lord: Only poor people.
Blackmailer in Goggles: Nya ha ha! You’ll never catch me!
Scene 4: Farr’s Home
Laura (Farr’s wife): That boy, Barrett, killed himself. Was it to protect you?
Laura: Did you sleep with him?
Farr: NO! The movie censors wouldn’t let it go that far. BUT I WANTED TO!
Laura: Were you in love him?
Farr: YES! HE VAS MY BOYFRIEND!
Act Three: Combat
Scene 5: Round the Town
Car Salesman: They want me to pay them tonight. But I haven’t the money.
Farr: I’ll pay them in your place.
Blackmailer in Goggles: Think you’re clever Farr?
(Blackmailer paints “FARR IS QUEER” on Farr’s garage door.)
Blackmailer in Goggles: Ain’t I a stinker? Now pay extra or I’ll out you too!
Farr: SCREW YOU! I’LL OUT MYSELF! Police?
Woke Inspector: Yeees?
Farr: Here’s where they want me to deliver the money.
Scene 6: The Book Store.
Book Store Owner: Why are you here Farr? Barrett left me because he loved you.
Farr: He’d been seeing you? I’ll bet someone else knew that too.
(Farr puts the money in a book. Lady Book Store Clerk takes the money. Remember her?)
Blackmailer no longer wearing Goggles: Great work! I’ve found some more queers to blackmail. Soon we’ll be rich!
Lady Book Store Clerk: THEY DISGUST ME! When I found out my boss was sleeping with a man I knew I had to punish them for their FILTHY BLASPHEMY!
Woke Inspector: You’re both under arrest!
Farr: I’ll testify against you. So will the Car Salesman!
Blackmailer no longer wearing Goggles: Ha! He’s no Victim. The Car Salesman was giving us names to pay his debts!
Car Salesman: My bad.
(Police take the blackmailers away).
Woke Inspector: I’m sorry this will wreck your career Farr. I’m cool with the gays.
Scene 7: Farr’s Home
Farr: I’ll be in court soon, speaking out against anti-gay laws. This would be a good time to leave me.
Laura: And I am telling you I’m not going. You’re the best man I’ll ever know. There’s no way I could ever go!
Farr: That’s great but… I’m gay.
Laura: YOU’RE GONNA LOOOVE MEEE!
Farr: Still gay.
The dreadful irony involved is that Dirk Bogarde looks so pained, so anguished from the self-sacrifice of repressing his homosexuality that the film seems to give rather a black eye to heterosexual life. ~ Pauline Kael, Film Critic
Farr isn’t perfect but he’s the sort of proactive, heroic character gay men don’t often get to play. By the end of the film he has come out of the closet despite claiming to have never had gay sex. His wife is going to stay with him, for now, though his career will be over. One hopes he’ll eventually accept his sexuality and allow himself a chance at love. Britain’s anti-gay laws would not be overturned till 1967. Victim, and the last film I covered, The Leather Boys, are credited with swaying public opinion on the issue.
I left a subplot out of my recap. Barrett’s friend investigates some suspects in a gay bar who turn out to be red herrings. One suspect is actually an undercover cop who’s hunting the blackmailers himself. There’s a hint that the friend and the cop might hook up. This gives us multiple gay heroes fighting for the victims.
Of the retro films I’ve recapped Victim is the one I’d most recommend watching. The film is streaming on Amazon. You can watch the trailer here, a coy interview with Dirk Bogarde here, and a tense husband/wife confrontation scene here. Have you already seen the film? Was it positive representation in 1961? Does it hold up today? For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.