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DVD SAVANT

Victim


Victim
Home Vision Entertainment
1961 / b&w / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 90 100 min. / Street Date January 21, 2003 / $19.95
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Anthony Nicholls, Peter Copley, Norman Bird, Peter McEnery, Derren Nesbitt, John Barrie, John Cairney, Nigel Stock, Charles Lloyd Pack
Cinematography Otto Heller
Production Designer Alex Vetchinsky
Film Editor John D. Guthridge
Original Music Philip Green
Written by Janet Green and John McCormick
Produced by Michael Relph
Directed by Basil Dearden

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1960, a daring color film called The Trials of Oscar Wilde helped bring the unfair British anti-gay laws out into the open. By criminalizing the homosexual lifestyle, an entire section of the population was officially denied the right to exist above ground, and even those gays who had made adjustments to convention were in constant danger of humiliating banishment from decent society. Coming out of the closet often meant being disinherited, fired, and even jailed.

The Victim is the landmark film on the topic. It uses a contemporary thriller approach. Thanks to its sincerity and sobriety, it has endured as a studiously unsensational plea for tolerance - perhaps not the most liberated film on the subject, but the one England needed then.

Synopsis:

Barrister Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) is in line for promotion when disaster strikes. A male ex-lover (or not, depending on whom one believes) is being blackmailed. After the youth hangs himself in a police cell, Farr realizes it was a gesture to protect him, and vows to seek out the blackmailers. In this he finds resistance from everyone, including the victims; with homosexuality a jailable offense, British gays are an easy target. The poor and the rich alike pay to keep their closeted lives from being ruined. Farr's wife Laura (Sylvia Sims) has a tough time deciding how best to react; she knew of her husband's earlier affairs but doesn't know if she believes his claim that he's been true to her. Farr determines to press on and uncover the culprits, even though he knows he will forfeit his judicial career.

A bar is the hangout for some local closeted London gays, who include a meek barber who has already served jail time (Charles Lloyd Pack), a car salesman (Nigel Stock) and a construction worker (Peter McEnery). All are being blackmailed by someone who uses a motorcyle-driving tough (Derren Nesbitt) to make strong-arm collections.

Suave and handsome Dirk Bogarde, previously the hero of adventures and teen idol of comedies, changed career gears with Victim, becoming a serious actor while jettisoning his teen fans. All this was a daring and bold move for an actor who was himself gay (this from the author of the disc's liner notes) and therefore had to be especially careful with his career choices. By the 1960s, the laws were reportedly no longer being enforced, but they remained on the books, and were an added incentive to blackmail. Homosexuals were fair game for any criminal with the energy to tap them.

Victim is careful to present its gays as normal people living with petty discrimination and social disdain. It's not above giving its characters little position speeches. A bartender is friendly with his gay customers, but secretly loathes them. Farr's otherwise decent and upstanding brother-in-law is ready to write him off completely. The milquetoast barber protests that he just wants to be left alone. And the eventual villain rather conveniently spills forth a hateful speech rationalizing the crime.  1

The show carefully lays out the fear and suspicion that keeps the victims isolated from and hostile to each other. Farr is heroic in that he knows that giving in to the blackmailer will not make the problem go away. Anything but cooperation with the police will eventually compromise him as a jurist, an upholder of the law. It's a quest he finally has to pursue alone; even some of his business associates, also paying blackmail, try to stop him.

(possible spoilers)

At the end, the 'victims' are still as divided as ever, with only one blackmailer put out of commission. It's obvious that the film wanted to avoid the logical fact that organized crime would step in to keep the blackmail loot coming. And Farr doesn't finish with much of a victory. He'll see justice done, but the yellow press will surely destroy him, and ruin his chances for advancement in the field of law - even though he's stayed ethically pure.

Victim does have some minor compromises that are easily forgiven, especially considering the year the film was produced. The main cop on the case (John Barrie) is a sympathetic and fair man who sincerely wishes that the laws would change, so as to allow him to help these people. I think the majority of the cops would take the view of his subordinate Bridie (John Cairney, of The Flesh and the Fiends and A Night to Remember) and be much less compassionate. It would seem that even the 'civilized' English police force would share the common prejudice, fear, and loathing against gays. The head detective's intuition that the barrister would eventually come forward has the suspicious feel of compromise made to mollify the censor - the officials of the law and the court remain untarnished, entirely above the issue.

And what are we to make of Farr's claim that he and 'boy' Barrett never had relations, that he was technically faithful to his proclaimed straight life with the missus? From Barrett's point of view, it doesn't seem likely. But it's beside the point - an inconclusive photo and a denouncement is all it would take to bring a good man down.

The main blackmailer is played by Derren Nesbitt, a German-looking fellow with thick blonde hair (familiar as the purple-lipped SS man in Where Eagles Dare). He dresses like a mod-rocker tough who might himself be gay and denying it by persecuting his peers.  2 Dennis Price, the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets plays a calculating stage actor; nervous Nigel Stock is familiar from The Great Escape.

The saving grace of Victim is that it doesn't impress as special pleading. The thriller aspect stays interesting. And even the victims have a sense of humor: "It's not exactly like a witch hunt: they don't burn us." Expertly directed and well-photographed by Otto Heller (graduate of Peeping Tom), this is a serious film with a good mystery and intelligent surprises along the way.


Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Victim is yet another of their superior imports, and it comes with an interesting extra, a 1961 interview with the dapper Dirk Bogarde on his career and the film Victim. The interviewer is sort of a snob with a very stuffy style, but Bogarde manages to make his erudition likeable, and shrewdly trots out his dog, a giant Mastiff, to show how thoroughly normal he is. Hey, the dog loves him ... Bogarde's self-analysis is more thoughtful than most, and he downplays the potentially damaging subject manner of Victim without as much as a hint of concern or discomfort.

The informative and context-providing liner notes are by David Thomson; this is reportedly the 100 minute original version of the film and is not censored.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Victiom rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, 1961 interview with Dirk Bogarde
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 16, 2003


Footnotes:

1. More than one of these speeches (Pack's hairdresser and Syms' housewife) are interrupted by opticals where an existing shot is blown up slightly, and becomes grainier. These would seem to be evidence of post-production editing to cut out something - were there stronger lines written that were excised?
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2. This isn't fair to Nesbitt, but his exaggerated features, jutting lips and too-perfect hair make him a dead ringer for one of the weird Marionettes of Stingray or Thunderbirds. Sorry. Had to say it, it's true.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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