Victim (1961)   5 comments

opening

Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery) sees a police car pulling up to his job as a clerk on a construction site and runs. Desperate, he goes from friend to friend trying to borrow money or a car to leave London. Boy embezzled money and the police are on his trail. His friends console him and try to help, but Boy gets picked up at a roadside diner and police bring him to headquarters. There, sympathetic Detective Inspector Harris (John Barrie) and his assistant Bridie (John Cairney) attempt to convince Boy to talk to them. During their investigation into the missing funds, the detectives discover that despite his windfall, Boy lives simply and has no cash at his tiny flat. To the police, that means one thing: blackmail. That blackmail and those affected by it on both sides of the law are the focus of director Basil Dearden’s taut drama.

grilling

Early in the film we learn the reason behind the blackmail is Boy’s homosexuality and his desire to shield another from both blackmailers and police who could still arrest gays until 1967. When Harris finds clippings about a prominent barrister in a scrapbook Boy attempted to destroy, he summons subject Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) to the station to learn if Farr knew of the plot. When he hears of the police’s theory and the consequences, Farr decides to root out the cowardly criminals even if it means the ruin of his own highly successful marriage and career. We see Farr as a man of great integrity who lives by his principles. He has a lovely wife, Laura, played with restraint by Sylvia Syms (The World of Suzie Wong), a wide circle of friends, and a tremendous future in the law. His investigation threatens all that and yet he continues, trying to help others ensnared by the thieves without implicating them. As Farr learns more about the crimes, he sees many of the men victimized by the blackmailers and their reasons for paying off without seeking help from police. An older shop owner tells Farr he’s already been in jail three times and couldn’t bear it a fourth. A colleague of Farr’s must keep his activities under wraps or lose his career. A well-known stage actor, placed by Dennis Price (Kind Hearts and Coronets) just wants the whole thing to go away.
The film shows us the attitudes of those on the periphery as well. During Boy’s early attempt to flee, he meets friends who obviously care for him and one who find his sexual orientation loathsome. One of his true friends jokes “Well, it used to be witches. At least they don’t burn you.” One friend promises to send him money and another begs him to go to the police and offers to accompany him. In the pub where many of Boy’s friends congregate, we see knowing glances and rolled eyes along with sympathy and indifference. The two policemen on the case feel differently too. In response to Bridie’s negative comment about homosexuals Harris says “I see you’re a true puritan, Bridie, eh?”
Bridie: “There’s nothing wrong with that, sir.”
Harris: “Of course not. There was a time when that was against the law you know.” Farr’s family and close associates differ in their attitudes as well. His wife knows her husband’s history but trusts him. Laura’s heartbreak is based more on a feeling of betrayal and less about who Farr may have betrayed her with. Her brother, who shows disgust about Farr’s homosexuality makes a salient point. If Farr stays outside the law in his investigation of the blackmailers, he becomes as dishonest as those who would hurt him. These moral ambiguities make Victim a deeper, more satisfying watch.

wife

Written by Janet Green and John McCormick to call attention to a law the authors hated, Victim’s strength is that it shows homosexuals as people, and not stereotypes. The victims of the nasty blackmailers have families, friends, jobs, and feelings. They’re not portrayed as predators or corruptors of the young, but men who love other men, a fact which leaves them at the mercy of unscrupulous criminals. Characters in the film mention the law against homosexuality quite a bit. One of the victims says “Consenting males in private should not be pillaried by an antiquated law.” Later Detective Inspector Harris tells Farr “Someone once called this law against homosexuality the blackmailer’s charter.”
Farr: “Is that how you feel about it?”
Harris: “I’m a policeman, sir. I don’t have feelings.”

thought

Basil Dearden and director of photography Otto Heller shot Victim in glorious black and white and the Criterion version looks crisp and gorgeous. Phillip Green’s spare music with piano punctuation blends seamlessly with the action on screen. The acting by the entire ensemble of veteran stars and character actors including Norman Bird, Derren Nesbitt, and even an uncredited Frank Thornton (Are You Being Served) looks natural and never over the top. Dirk Bogarde plays Farr brilliantly. He is stoic, but not unfeeling. The calm, subtle way he speaks with his wife, the police, and his fellow victims belies knowledge of the tragic turn he expects his life to take. Bogarde as Farr shows great strength of character and his resignation makes you believe him. As Farr says to Laura when they discuss his uncertain future, “My friends are going to lower their eyes and my enemies will say they always guessed.” I love this film. A decent man risks everything to fight something he knows is wrong. It doesn’t get much better.

I wrote this review as part of the British Invaders Blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote on his site A Shroud of Thoughts http://mercurie.blogspot.com/
I write a blog called Prowler Needs a Jump: Films of Every Stripe prowlerneedsajump.wordpress.com
You can talk to me on twitter too @echidnabot

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5 responses to “Victim (1961)

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  1. I think Victim features one of Sir Dirk Bogarde’s best performances. Of course, the whole cast did a very fine job! At any rate Victim has always impressed me, not simply because it is a well done film but because of its rather sensitive portrayal of homosexuality (very progressive for the time). Thank you so much for contributing to the blogathon!

    • I agree about Bogarde. He’s wonderful. I’ve always liked that the main characters and victims of the crime are all treated well. Even the woman who is mean to Boy isn’t a monster. The only reprehensible characters are the blackmailers and the homosexuality of the victims isn’t portrayed with winks and snarkiness. The film has always stuck with me. The entire Dearden set on Criterion is terrific.

    • Thank you for hosting and reading the review!

  2. Just watched this again this week, and it re-affirmed for me that it is a masterpiece.

    I love how the film circles the topic of homosexuality for a bit, and then when Farr is being interviewed by the police, the cop goes “Did you know he was a homosexual?” The word is just like a hammer blow when it finally does come out. it’s obvious that that is the affect it has on Farr

    I also love the scene where Farr’s wife gets the truth out of him. She knows, or at least suspects what the truth is, and really is afraid of it. but also isn’t willing to live with these questions anymore. That is just a marvellously written and acted scene.

    BTW, I am bookmarking your site. You’ve got good stuff.

    • Thank you very much! I can’t say enough about Victim. It’s beautiful to look at too. I like the conversations between the policemen too. The Detective Inspector is enlightened, but non-committal and his underling is more traditional on the subject of homosexuality. It’s a nice running conversation throughout the film. The acting, of course, is wonderful. I loved that scene between Bogarde and Syms too. Thank you again for reading and commenting!

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