We’re back with more movie reviews and today’s film is a groundbreaking piece of cinema. Known as the first English language film to use the term “homosexual,” Victim is a seminal film in gay cinema. I first heard about it in watching parts of the Celluloid Closet (a documentary I’ll be reviewing in the future), and while I wouldn’t pop this into my DVD player on a rainy day, it’s certainly a film worth watching to see how gays were portrayed in the early 1960s. Aside from that Victim is a taut thriller that focuses on the idea of gossip and what it can do to a person…even drive them to their death!
Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is a prominent lawyer with a beautiful wife named Laura (Sylvia Syms). When a young man named Barrett (Peter McEnery) from Melville’s past tries to get ahold of him, Melville avoids him. Barrett eventually ends up dead and there are rumors that Melville may be one of several homosexuals who are being blackmailed.
To start in the “isn’t it funny” part of the review, the film was originally distributed by the company Janus Films. If you’re like me, Janus’ distinctive logo caught your eye as it did mine. This is the same company that would distribute Caligula a few years later…..going fromg a groundbreaking film about homosexual blackmail…to a movie financed by Hustler magazine where a major scene involves a fist going up someone’s backside…..weird.
Moving on to the film itself. After the fantastic opening score by Phillip Green, the movie makes quick business of establishing all the major characters. What’s fascinating is that each male character has a distinct nervous tic that is evident throughout the entire movie. From pen flipping to head rubbing each character interrogated about being gay subconsciously gives themselves away, creating a visual representation about homosexuals being hidden in plain sight and deeply ingrained in the society as a whole.
Victim is a film that plays on so many levels that the main plot isn’t what you pay attention to. Throughout the entire film you’re questioning, right along with the various detectives, who is truly gay and who isn’t. Many of the men skirt the line between gay and simply sensitive and none of them have jobs that would give any hint to their sexuality as the professions range from laborer, barbershop owner, lawyer, and actor. I mentioned the tics above but various characters intentionally come off as fake and over-the-top to the point you have to ask “Is he gay?” “Can you REALLY tell if someone is gay?” and ultimately “What does that say about me that I question everyone’s sexuality? And what happens if I’m wrong?” That final question provides the plot of the film, that regardless of whether Melville is gay, the question being asked will ruin his reputation. Victim sets itself on a similar path to the Salem Witch trials which opens up a very interesting analysis of this movie.
The various relationships within the film are delved into and explored to great effect. We first meet Laura and Melville who have a sweet and genuine relationship. Bogarde and Syms have great chemistry and we ultimately see that Laura is not an idiot as you’d expect of a film in the 1960s. The two have a discussion in the film’s opening moments and immediately go into the same bedroom (the intentions that are brought up…SCANDALOUS!). We then meet Frank (Alan Howard) and his girlfriend Sylvie (Dawn Beret) whose relationship seems so fake that you’re led (or your overactive imagination is working overtime) to believe that Frank is gay. Throughout the movie the men are filmed in shadow while the women are filmed in stark light and all possess platinum blonde hair. Now in Hitchcock’s world, platinum blonde ladies were cold and mysterious. Here the shadows obviously refer to men hiding their secrets, being “in the closet” but the women are seen more as open. Even the notion of filming this is in black and white adds another dimension to the story as the risk of a lost reputation puts things into a black and white perspective.
The script, penned by Janet Green and John McCormick is where all the sociopolitical stuff comes out and boy can you draw parallels to today’s society. Throughout the movie there’s a blatant segregation between the homosexual community and the rest of the area. In this time, according to IMDB and Wiki the Sexual Offences Act was in effect which made homosexuality illegal but by 1960 the police were rather lax on the arrests. As long as it wasn’t out in the open, they turned a blind eye. So throughout you hear comments about “Why can’t [so and so] stay with his own sort” or “it was bound to come out in the end.” Many moments are punctuated with the line “if only they were normal.”
No matter what the characters are never surprised when someone is accused of being gay, proof that most people were simply ignoring it at this point. Even the lead detective doesn’t believe Melville being married removes him from being gay, keeping in line with the belief that many gay men were marrying women as a means of hiding their true selves. Even the issue of whether homosexuality is inherent or chosen is discussed in this film with one of the characters stating, “Nature played me a dirty trick.” You get the full gamut of views on homosexuality from the gay men themselves. None of these men is proud to be gay, but living in fear of having their lives ruined or hate crimes perpetuated on them, seen when someone writers “FARR IS QUEER” on the side of Melville’s house. The fact that the nature comment is made by a gay character emphasizes the sad fact that a lack of acceptance makes them hate who they are.
Fear is ultimately what ends up killing the various characters, “watch for fear. Fear is the oxygen of blackmail.” The characters aren’t murdered by others, but killed through means like suicide or a heart attack. The fear of being outcast, revealed as “abnormal” kills these men and not someone else which I found sad and a stroke of genius for the film.
The movie ultimately lies on an important dialogue and reveal between Melville and Laura. Bogarde isn’t a huge “presence” compared to other actors but the man has gravitas for sure. He’s thought-provoking and dignified, he was beyond brave for taking on this role, at this time. He never lets fear come across even when he’s revealing his deepest, darkest secrets to the woman he loves. The final scenes in the movie reveal Melville’s past with Barrett and his own sexuality. I wrote down the dialogue but I think I’ll just embed the video which speaks more than I can describe. The confrontation scene comes about 5 and a half minutes in
Pretty compelling and daring stuff! Laura is shown as FAR smarter than I originally assumed and more open in discussing Melville’s sexuality than even he is. Bogarde’s speech is filled with such sadness as he comes to realize he did love a man and he has ultimately come out. The film’s reveal of who are the blackmailers ends up being pretty anti-climatic after Melville has been put through the wringer emotionally. The blackmailers feel that the men were all “perverts” and the cops were ignoring it leaving Melville to realize he needs to accept himself, damn the consequences, and testify against the blackmailers to prevent any more lives from being destroyed.
The movie is more of a film to see in the history of film itself. If you want to learn more about the various “firsts” in cinema than Victim needs to be on your list. As a film though it’s not anything you’d want to watch for fun. I’m glad I saw it and it is a fantastic film to be sure, just don’t expect to want to run out to buy the DVD for a Saturday afternoon.
Announcements: If you didn’t notice, I’ve started taking notes on the film regularly (I even bought a notebook!) so the reviews should be more in-depth. I’m also going to try to include more pictures and video. As I get closer to summer vacation the blog will definitely be doing a lot more. I’ll be putting up a poll asking what people want to see done first in terms of tournaments, another film fest, etc.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.