Basil Dearden’s Victim, from 1961, was one of the first British-made films to deal openly and explicitly with (male) homosexuality, and the serious prejudices faced by gay men in the United Kingdom. Couched as a potboiler mystery of sorts, Victim follows successful barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a closeted homosexual who becomes involved with the police following the suicide of a young man with whom he had a romantic (but asexual) relationship. The source of “Boy” Barratt’s suicide are several photographs of him and Farr sent to him by a blackmailer who demands payment in exchange for the photographs. Discovering that a number of gay men have received similar demands, Farr decides that he’s going to discover who the blackmailer is. The film is complicated by Britain’s anti-homosexuality law, which criminalized homosexual acts between men. This meant that any man found “guilty” of homosexuality could be sent to prison. The blackmailer of the film has, in effect, the law on his or her side.
In Farr’s journey to discover the blackmailer, he comes into contact with a spread of the social classes, all of them containing men forced to live double lives. The film exposes the complicated feelings of both men and women about a taboo subject. Farr is closeted and married, his wife (Sylvia Syms) aware of his homosexuality but hurt when she discovers that he fell in love with Barratt. Her reaction is entirely natural, her love for her husband very real; she seems more betrayed by the fact that he desired someone else than by the fact that the someone else was a man. Nor is his love for her made light of – he does care for her, and is as concerned for her future as he is for his own.
As Farr discovers more and more men, some of his own acquaintance, who are being blackmailed, the perversions of the law against homosexuality are revealed. None of the men are willing to go to the police for a multitude of reasons, most of them coming down to fear of arrest and imprisonment. One older man remarks that he has been to prison four times for homosexual acts, and that he will not go back; if that means he has to pay to keep the blackmailer silent, then he will. Fear permeates the film, these men forced to live double lives in denial of their desires.
The standout performance of the film belongs to Bogarde as a man who has lived a life suppressing his most basic desires (there’s an implication that Farr has never actually had sex with men). Farr is not altruistic, and his unwillingness to communicate with the police means that more people are hurt. Farr’s bravery in potentially sacrificing his career and his liberty to bring the blackmailers to justice is further complicated when we learn that the incriminating photographs are not so incriminating – they could not have stood up in court as proof of a homosexual relationship. His pursuit of the case is a way of expatiating his guilt for ultimately rejecting Barratt, not to mention the role he accidentally played in the young man’s suicide.
If the film fails anywhere it is in the too explicit treatment of homosexuality. By daring to discuss the matter openly, it at times sacrifices subtlety, especially in the minor characters. The denouement feels somewhat forced, the revelation of the blackmailer a little too simple in terms of motive.
In the end, Victim remains a distressingly topical film. The homophobia expressed by some of the characters feels all too current when one considers that this was a film made 50 years ago. It was influential in raising discussion of homosexuality in Britain – and probably helped to take down the law that made it illegal. Although some aspects appear dated, Victim remains a powerful and moving look into the cruelty of a culture that requires people to repress a fundamental part of their being, or risk exclusion, ridicule, and even violence.