Victim (1961 film)
Original 1961 British quad format cinema poster
|Directed by||Basil Dearden|
|Produced by||Michael Relph|
|Written by||Janet Green,
|Music by||Philip Green|
|Edited by||John D. Guthridge|
|Distributed by||Rank Film Distributors|
Victim is a 1961 British suspense film directed by Basil Dearden, starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. It is notable in film history for being the first English language film to use the word "homosexual". The world premiere was at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square on 31 August 1961. On its release in the United Kingdom it proved highly controversial to the British Board of Film Censors, and in the U.S. it was refused a seal of approval from the American Motion Picture Production Code.
A successful barrister, Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) has a thriving London practice. He is on course to become a Queen's Counsel and people are already talking of his being appointed a judge. He is apparently happily married to his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms).
Farr is approached by "Boy" Barrett (Peter McEnery), a younger working class man with whom Farr shared a romantic but non-sexual relationship. Farr rebuffs the approach, thinking Barrett wants to blackmail him about their relationship. What Farr does not know is that Barrett himself has fallen prey to blackmailers who know of their relationship. The blackmailers have a picture of Farr and Barrett in a vehicle together, in which Barrett is crying with Farr's arm around him. Barrett has been trying to reach Farr to appeal for help, because Barrett has stolen £2,300 from his employers to pay the blackmailer and the police suspect him. Farr intentionally avoids him. Barrett is soon picked up by the police, who discover why he was being blackmailed. Knowing it will be only a matter of time before he is forced to reveal Farr's identity as the other man, Barrett hangs himself in a police cell.
Learning the truth about Barrett, Farr takes on the blackmail ring and recruits a friend of Barrett's to investigate for him. The friend identifies a gay hairdresser who has also been victimised by the ring, but the hairdresser refuses to identify his tormentors. When the hairdresser is visited by one of the blackmailers, he suffers a heart attack, as they begin to destroy his shop. Prior to his death, he phones Farr's house and leaves a mumbled message about another victim of the ring.
Farr contacts this victim, a famous actor, but the actor refuses to help him, preferring to pay the blackmailers to keep his secret. Laura finds out about Barrett's death and confronts her husband, demanding he tell her the truth. After a heated argument, Farr admits that before their marriage he had had a relationship with another man; the man had subsequently killed himself when the relationship ended. He had told Laura about this before they married and promised that he no longer had such urges. Laura, seeing Farr's relationship with Barrett as a betrayal, decides to leave him.
The blackmailers vandalise Farr's property, painting "FARR IS QUEER" on his garage doors. Farr resolves to help the police catch them and promises to give evidence in court, despite knowing that the ensuing press coverage will certainly destroy his career. The blackmailers are identified and arrested. Farr tells Laura to leave before the ugliness of the trial, but that he will welcome her return afterward. She tells him that she believes she has found the strength to return to him. Farr burns the picture that incriminated him.
- Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr
- Sylvia Syms as Laura Farr
- Dennis Price as Calloway
- Nigel Stock as Phip
- Peter McEnery as Boy Barrett
- Donald Churchill as Eddy Stone
- Anthony Nicholls as Lord Fullbrook
- Hilton Edwards as P.H.
- Norman Bird as Harold Doe
- Derren Nesbitt as Sandy Youth
- Alan MacNaughtan as Scott Hankin
- Noel Howlett as Patterson
- Charles Lloyd-Pack as Henry
- John Barrie as Detective Inspector Harris
- John Cairney as Bridie
- David Evans as Mickey
- Peter Copley as Paul Mandrake
- Frank Pettitt as Barman
- Mavis Villiers as Madge
- Margaret Diamond as Miss Benham
- Alan Howard as Frank
- Dawn Beret as Sylvie
- John Bennett as Undercover Detective (uncredited)
- John Boxer as Policeman in Cell (uncredited)
- Frank Thornton as George, Henry's assistant (uncredited)
Background and production
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Until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which implemented the recommendations of the Wolfenden report, homosexual acts between males were illegal in England and Wales. The fact that willing participants in consensual homosexual acts could be prosecuted made them vulnerable to entrapment, and was known as the "blackmailer's charter". There were prosecutions, and tabloid Sunday newspapers gave space to the court reports. However, by 1960, the police were as relaxed as possible over the old laws. There was an inclination to "turn a blind eye" to homosexuality, because there was a feeling that the legal code violated decent liberty. Even so, police restraint did not deter the menace of blackmail.
Scriptwriter Janet Green had already previously collaborated with Basil Dearden on a previous British "social problem" film, Sapphire, which had dealt with racism against Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. After reading the Wolfenden report and aware of the context of several high-profile prosecutions against gay men, she became a keen supporter of homosexual law reform.
When the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden first approached Bogarde, they warned him that a lot of people had already turned down the script because the material might be considered dangerous or unwholesome. In 1960, Bogarde was 39 and just about the most popular actor in British films. He had proven himself playing war heroes (The Sea Shall Not Have Them; Ill Met by Moonlight); he was the star of the hugely successful Doctor film series; and he was a reliable romantic lead in films like A Tale of Two Cities. He was flirting with a larger, Hollywood career—playing Liszt in Song Without End. Bogarde was suspected to be homosexual, living in the same house as his business manager, Anthony Forwood, and was compelled every now and then to be seen in public with attractive young women. He seems not to have hesitated over the role of Farr. Similarly, Sylvia Syms never flinched from the part of his wife, though apparently several actresses had turned it down.
Other gay cast members included Dennis Price and Hilton Edwards. Though it mostly treats homosexuality in a non-sensationalised manner, there is one rather catty aspect to the film—Price's character (a prominent gay theatre star) would have been fairly easy for contemporary audiences to identify with Noël Coward.
Victim became a highly sociologically significant film; many believe it played an influential role in liberalising attitudes (as well as the laws in Britain) regarding homosexuality. It was not a major hit but by 1971 had earned an estimated profit of £51,762.
The British Board of Film Censors originally gave the film an X rating. In a letter to the filmmakers, the BBFC secretary raised four objections to the film. First, a male character says of another man, "I wanted him". Second, references to "self-control" in the revised script were left out of a filmed discussion of homosexuality, leaving the discussion "without sufficient counterbalance". Third, the film implies that homosexuality is a choice, which "is a dangerous idea to put into the minds of adolescents who see the film". Finally, when the blackmailer Brenda unleashes a tirade against homosexuality, her popular view will be discredited since she is such an unsympathetic character.
Hollywood Production Code
In the United States, the use of the term "homosexual", and its opposition to anti-gay criminal laws, kept the film from receiving approval by the Hollywood Production Code. A few years prior to Victim, the filmmakers of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) had persuaded the code censors to allow their film to use homosexuality as a plot device, but only if presented through cryptic innuendos, and film had to illustrate the "horrors of such a lifestyle".
The film Victim, in contrast, was deemed to be too frank and liberal in its treatment of homosexuality, and, thus, was initially not given approval by the censorship code. However, in 1962, the Hollywood Production Code had agreed to lift the ban on films using homosexuality as a plot device. A few years later the code itself would be replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America, which introduced age-appropriate classification for films.
Initially, Victim was generally classified as an "adult" film, often with the X classification that was initially given to pornographic films. However, as anti-gay prejudices declined, the rating classifications for the film were also revised.
When Victim was released on VHS in America (1986), it was given the PG-13 rating. Likewise, when Victim was re-released in the United Kingdom it was reclassified with the much milder PG/12 rating.
The use of the term "queer"
The term "queer" is used in the film, in two completely different ways. As mentioned above, "FARR IS QUEER" is painted on Farr's garage door (i.e. Farr is homosexual), and the expression "Queer Street" (meaning in desperate poverty) is used in a reply to some red herring fraudsters who write begging letters.
- Different from the Others (Anders als die Andern)—a 1919 German film seen as a precursor of Victim.
- The Children's Hour—a similar film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine and also released in 1961, that was controversial for its storyline dealing with lesbianism.
- List of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender-related films
- Article in The Times, 30 August 1961, page 11: "Intelligent film on homosexuality"—During its openings sequences, 'Victim', which has its world première at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square, tomorrow, is little more than a crime story... Found in The Times Digital Archive on 13 October 2013.
- Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England, Stein and Day, 1974 p157
- Stafford, Jeff. "Victim". Turner Classic Movies.
- Robertson, James Crighton (1993), The hidden cinema: British film censorship in action, 1913–1975, Routledge, p. 120, ISBN 978-0-415-09034-6
- Greenfield, Steve; Osborn, Guy; Robson, Peter (2001), Film and the law, Routledge, p. 118, ISBN 978-1-85941-639-6
- "PG Tips", Harper's Magazine. July 2012, p. 17.
- Hadleigh, B. (2001). The Lavender Screen: The Gay and Lesbian Films—Their Stars, Makers, Characters, and Critics (Rev. ed.). New York City, NY: Citadel Press. ISBN 978-0-8065-2199-2.
- Case Study: Victim, Students' British Board of Film Classification
- "Victim". The Criterion Collection.
- John Coldstream: Victim: BFI Film Classics: British Film Institute/Palgrave-Macmillan: 2011: ISBN 978-1-84457-427-8.
- Richard Dyer: "Victim: Hegemonic Project" in Richard Dyer: The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation: London: Routledge: 2002.
- "William Drummond" (pseud. Arthur Calder-Marshall): Victim (1961), Corgi: film novelisation
- Patrick Higgins: Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain: London: Fourth Estate: 1996: ISBN 1-85702-355-2
- Philip Kemp: "I Wanted Him: Revival: Victim" Sight and Sound 15:8 (August 2005): 10.
- Andrew Watson: "Shifting Attitudes on Homosexuality" History Today: 65.20 (September/October 2011): 15–17.
- Victim at the Internet Movie Database
- Victim in the British Film Institute's "Explore film..." database
- Victim at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- Criterion Collection article about Victim