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A groundbreaking drama that introduced the taboo theme of homosexuality into mainstream British cinema
When it was first released in 1961, Victim was banned in the United States. Watching the film in the 21st century, it's hard to imagine what our American cousins could find offensive about a movie directed by The League Of Gentlemen's Basil Dearden and starring Ealing veteran Dennis Price and that nice Dirk Bogarde from the Doctor movies. But the problem for the US censor focused not on the cast or crew. Even the subject matter wasn't strictly taboo. No, the bone of contention was a word which, to that point in time, had never been uttered on a movie screen. What was this abomination to the English language, this affront to the world's decent, clean-living people? The word was "homosexual".
Back in 1961 homosexuality was not discussed in polite society. So when Victim hung its entire story upon the persecution of a gay barrister, there were a lot of people writing to their MP or dashing off pompous letters to 'The Times'. Such was the fuss that, while Victim was banned in America, it was edited for release pretty much everywhere else.
To watch the full, unexpurgated version of Victim is to be simultaneously amused by the small-mindedness of those times and amazed by the courage that led a cast and crew to make a film about "the love that dare not speak its name" at a time when it was still illegal. Dirk Bogarde - arguably then the biggest star in the country - plays Melville Farr, a barrister. Although he is married to the beautiful Laura (Sylvia Syms), Farr is gay, a fact that has been unearthed by a ring of blackmailers who have photos of him in the company of men. Since these criminals are also holding other gay men to ransom, Farr - aware of what might happen to his reputation - sets out to bring the bad guys to book.
For too long now, interest in Victim has almost entirely focussed upon the film bringing a taboo term out into the open. The merits of the movie have been all but forgotten, which is a shame because Victim is a brilliantly acted, fantastically ballsy piece of British cinema. Dirk Bogarde - whose effete manner and epic integrity make him the perfect man to play Farr - is staggeringly good, turning a potentially stereotyped character into a man of true substance. Sylvia Syms is also excellent as a good woman whose efforts to understand her husband aren't clouded by her love for him. There are also notable supporting turns from (an underused) Dennis Price, a young Derren Nesbitt and John Barrie, who is superb as the sympathetic policeman.
Since its bread-and-butter camerawork and uninspired sets make it seem like any other British film of the era, it's easy to dismiss Victim as being dated. However, the fact that it shares the trappings of no end of other movies actually makes Victim quite remarkable. By setting the story in an immediately recognisable world using the film language of the time, Basil Dearden made the sad tale of Melville Farr seem rather mundane and therefore all the more shocking. Tolerance levels might have changed, but Victim continues to tap into something truly timeless - man's inhumanity to man.
In a nutshell: For a long time, it's been fashionable to think of Victim as a little film that made a big fuss over a long word. One can only hope this re-release awakens people to the true power of Basil Dearden's film and the extraordinary bravery of Dirk Bogarde's performance.
By Richard Luck
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