It’s not often you get to see a film that contributed to a positive change in Britain’s law and helped to alter societal attitudes. Victim did just that. It was released in 1961, when homosexuality was still illegal and even saying the word in a film was unheard of. The story opens with a young wage clerk on a construction site running from the police who want to arrest him for stealing. He unsuccessfully tries to phone Melville Farr, a leading barrister, who refuses to take his calls. The clerk, Barrett, is arrested and we learn he stole the money because he was being blackmailed over an unconsummated romantic relationship with Farr, who he refuses to reveal to the police. Farr himself has had no contact with the blackmailers so decides to try and work out who’s behind it, encountering a number of people in Barrett’s circle suffering a similar ordeal.
It may seem like a tame mystery plot now, but the film was hugely provocative in the early 60s; America refused to show it and several actors had turned down the lead roles. The controversy was amplified by the film’s star leading matinee idol Dirk Bogarde, star of several wartime classics and the Doctor series (a tame precursor to Carry On) which had made him a much-loved actor in Britain on the cusp of a Hollywood career. He is perfectly cast as Farr managing to convey a stoical and smooth public image, whilst riven with repression, guilt and sadness in private. The scenes between Farr and his wife Laura, played by Sylvia Sym, are some of the best in the film, exploring the nature of marriage, companionship and varying forms of love which clearly exist between the couple. Laura knew of a pre-relationship Farr had with a school friend but married him anyway, and rather than a tired cliché of the wronged and unsuspecting wife, we get a very clever and sensitive portrayal of a woman who understands the world, responding with respect and dignity to her husband’s situation. The scenes between them are at times very tender, and despite Farr’s affair with another man, he clearly loves and needs his wife. It’s rare, even now, to see such complexity in similar on-screen relationships, which helps to make it all the more realistic.
Despite the reaction on release, this isn’t a sensationalist film; in fact it’s fairly gentle. The story is driven by the mystery to be solved, and is pretty traditional in its framing. The senior detective leading the case is more interested in the blackmailers than what people are being blackmailed for, which is also nicely played. You get to hear a range of contemporary views about homosexuality but it’s hardly ever preachy. It was great to see Sylvia Sym at the Q&A beforehand, irascible, belligerent and hilarious, but reinforcing how important this film was and how much she loved working on it. This was a fitting end to my film festival experience, 3 out of 4 very good films, and the chance to see something that really made a difference.