Chiswick In Film: Victim

Image above: Victim; photograph IMDb

1961 British crime thriller directed by Basil Dearden, written by Janet Green and John McCormick, starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms

Victim was neither a big box office hit nor a great critical success at the time it came out, despite Dirk Bogarde being one of the most popular actors in British films at the time, but it was a landmark film.

Later it was considered by many to be the film in which Bogarde gave the best performance of his career. It was the subject matter which ensured its initial reception was muted and which gives the film its significance.

It is about the blackmail of gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain and it was the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual”, which meant it was banned initially in the United States and British censors gave it an X rating, (though now it is rated PG/12).

Writing about it in the Guardian in 2017 when it was re-released in UK cinemas in a restored digital print, Peter Bradshaw says:

‘Dearden’s film conjures up the skin-crawlingly nasty and whispery world of blackmail in the tatty streets of London’s West End … Bogarde has a kind of darkly troubled poise that is utterly of its time.’

Image above: Sylvia Syms and Dirk Bogarde in Victim (1961); ITV and Park Circus

Plot

Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a successful, apparently happily married barrister with a thriving law practice. He has a romantic friendship with a young working-class gay man, Jack “Boy” Barrett. When Barrett tries to get in touch Farr thinks he is attempting to blackmail him but in fact it is Barrett who is being blackmailed.

The blackmailers have got hold of a photograph of the two of them together, in which Farr has his arm around Barrett and Barrett is crying. Barrett is picked up by the police, and realising it is only a matter of time before the details of their relationship come out, he hangs himself in his police cell.

When Farr finds this out he makes it his mission to take on the blackmail ring and see them punished even though he knows the court case and resulting publicity will destroy his career and probably also his marriage.

In the story it is made clear the two men had not had sex; in fact all the photograph shows is the breaking of a social taboo.

Image above: The house where Melville Farr and his wife Laura live on Chiswick Mall; ITV and Park Circus

Chiswick scenes

The house where Farr lives with his wife Laura is on Chiswick Mall. In the film the blackmailers vandalise it, painting “FARR IS QUEER” on his garage door. Laura challenges him on breaking his promise to her when they married that he would not continue to have homosexual relationships and she leaves him, but ultimately she comes back to him.

There is a scene where he goes to see her at work, which was shot at Ravenscourt Park Preparatory School in Hammersmith, and another in which they are talking by the river.

Images above: Sequences filmed at Ravenscourt Park Preparatory School in Hammersmith and by the river; ITV and Park Circus

There is also a sequence where he is seen walking in the churchyard of St Nicholas Church, lost in contemplation.

Images above: Sequence filmed at St Nicholas churchyard; ITV and Park Circus

“The most startlingly outspoken film Britain has ever produced”

Victim is credited with having had a big impact on public opinion, coming out four years after the publication of the Wolfenden report in 1957 and six years before the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967.

The Wolfenden committee was set up after a string of high profile men were prosecuted for homosexuality, including Conservative politician Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, West Country landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, distinguished actor and theatre John Gielgud, and journalist, novelist and playwright Peter Wildeblood.

The committee recommended that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence” but its findings were debated for ten years before it led to a change in the law.

Producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden admitted the film was designed to be “an open protest against Britain’s law that being a homosexual is a criminal act”.

Images above: Dirk Bogarde in Victim; photograph IMDb

A London magazine called it “the most startlingly outspoken film Britain has ever produced”.

Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, wrote:

“The very fact that homosexuality as a condition is presented honestly and unsensationally, with due regard for the dilemma and the pathos, makes this an extraordinary film.”

When it was shown at the Venice Film Festival, an Italian critic commented:

“at last the British have stopped being hypocrites”.

Many people believed it had an impact in bringing about a change in the law and it also had an impact on the morale of gay men at the time, that someone was shining a light on the way they were victimised.

Peter McEnery, who was just starting out in his career when he played Barrett, was not by his own admission particularly liberal or knowledgeable about gay culture, he was just thrilled to be given such a good part and to be acting with the great Dirk Bogarde. Later he wrote:

‘When I finished the movie I went straight into the deep end in Stratford with the RSC, so I really wasn’t able to concentrate on what happened to Victim. But I did get a lot of letters from the gay community at the time, largely saying: “We all thank you,” which I thought was very touching.’

Image above: Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms in Victim; photograph IMDb

Cast

The part of Melville Farr was offered to Jack Hawkins, James Mason and Stewart Granger before it was offered to Dirk Bogarde. They all turned it down but Bogarde accepted it at once.

He never came out as gay, despite writing copious memoirs, but he lived with his business manager Anthony Forwood and was always assumed to be gay. Speaking about the film in 1965 he said:

“For the first time I was playing my own age. At Rank, the fixed rule was that I had to look pretty. Victim ended all that nonsense… It was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life.”

Years later he wrote in his biography:

“It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.”

Sylvia Syms also accepted the part of Laura quite happily. Film critic Mark Kermode has suggested this might have been because she had worked with John Gielgud and also because a family friend had killed himself after being accused of being gay.

The cast included a number of other young actors who have gone on to have big careers in theatre, film and television and to become well-known faces, including Peter McEnery, Nigel Stock, Alan Howard and Frank Thornton.

Video above: Victim trailer

You can see the film, re-released by ITV and Park Circus, here: youtube.com/watch

Chiswick In Film festival 2022

We showed two other Dirk Bogarde films at the first Chiswick In Film festival in October 2022: The Servant (1961) and Darling (1965), with sequences filmed at Chiswick House and Strand on the Green respectively. His co-star in The Servant, Sarah Miles, paid a surprise visit to the festival.

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