Re-released nationwide as part of the BFI’s Gross Indecency season, Basil Dearden’s Victim is now being shown uncut in British cinemas for the first time, 50 years to the month since the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967. Aside from the controversial subject matter at the time of the release, the added spice was of course the appearance of matinee idol Dirk Bogarde as a married lawyer, embroiled in a blackmail scandal that threatens to reveal his true sexual identity.
Despite being dressed up within a detective story, Victim is far more interested in scrutinising social attitudes of the time. It follows barrister Melville Farr (Bogarde) in his attempts to track down the blackmailer responsible for pressurising his ex-lover Barrett into suicide. Barrett is far from the only one being held to ransom, a fact discovered by Melville as men from all walks of life come forward. The plot mechanics of the story haven’t dated too well but that isn’t why the film is now considered a classic of British cinema.
What remains so fascinating is the depiction of gay life at a time when it was not only illegal, but viewed as highly immoral by a large section of British society. Perhaps the easiest way to show these men would have been profiling them in the same way we see Melville; an upper-class well-dressed man, softly spoken and gently effeminate. Yet we see a cross section of people, men simply living their lives, labouring on building sites, running small businesses and working at the top of a highly respected profession.
The message Dearden and writers Janet Green and John McCormick were conveying is that your sexuality doesn’t alter your ability to lead a regular life, or require you to live up to stereotype. These are attitudes most people now accept as the norm, but at the time they were revolutionary ideas to be shown on the big screen. The films triumph lies in the time taken to genuinely represent a section of society that had been forced to exist in secret under reviled persecution. In fact, it’s the blackmailers who are shown as the crooks, even though Melville and the other men are deemed to have technically broken the law for expressing their love and physical desires.
For Bogarde himself, it was a huge risk to move away from his traditional masculine roles, while at the same time stepping closer to the rumours circulating around his own personal life. Two years later he would also appear in Harold Pinter’s The Servant, although the gay element of the story was downplayed compared to the original novel. And yet, while we like to pat ourselves on the back and state how progressive we are today, little has changed in some regards. Bogarde could never reveal he was gay for fear of it destroying his career. Five decades on, right across the male celebrity world, that same fear is as strong as ever.
In light of this re-release, a reappraisal of Basil Dearden’s career should really be in order, not only for helping to kick start the horror anthology with Dead of Night, his classic crime noir The League of Gentlemen but also for bravely challenging racial attitudes in Pool of London and Sapphire. His landmark film, Victim, was a result of an undercurrent of change occurring in the UK, where the post-war generation began to make their mark in what would be a vital decade of social revolution for these isles. It undoubtedly proved to be pivotal time for Bogarde too, finally given the chance to let his art truly speak for himself.