Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

VICTIM

"Are you sure you weren't feeling too fond of him?"
VICTIM (1961). Director: Basil Dearden.

"I'm not a life bell for you to cling to." -- Laura.

A young man named Jack (Peter McEnery of Tales That Witness Madness) is wanted by the police for embezzlement, but won't tell them what he needed the money for. Jack refuses to admit that he is being blackmailed for being homosexual -- which was still a criminal offense in those days. Although he has tried to get in touch with a friend, the well-known lawyer Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), Farr -- who is married to Laura (Sylvia Sims) -- refuses to talk to him. Laura learns of Jack's suicide and confronts her husband about him. Apparently she knew about a gay fling he had in the past and had hoped that he could change. Melville admits that he had sexual feelings for Jack but rejected him before anything could happen. He knows this may destroy his career and even his life, but decides to go after the blackmailers who, in essence, murdered Jack and are destroying others ... Victim was ahead of its time, and it remains a powerful and completely absorbing movie, with excellent performances from the entire cast. It is by no means a perfect movie, however, and one could not expect it to have nothing but 21st century attitudes when the film was made over fifty years ago. Still it's surprising how much sophisticated stuff managed to get into the picture. When Sgt. Bridie (John Cairney) suggests that Farr can't be homosexual because he has a wife, his superior, the more sympathetic Inspector Harris (John Barrie), immediately says "Famous last words." The notion is put forth more than once that homosexuals can't be converted, as well as the idea that there is nothing wrong in homosexuality and the laws against it are unfair and antiquated.

However, I do have a problem with the ending. The implication is that Melville and Laura may ultimately stay together, which seems unrealistic, although others have seen the ending more as an acknowledgment of deep friendship -- and Jack will certainly need friends when the blackmail trial is over -- along with his career and future. More problematic is the way Melville burns the photograph of himself and Jack in the fireplace. This was used as blackmail evidence, but it can't be used to harm either himself or Jack anymore, and it seems cold that Melville would burn what is probably the only photo of a man who loved him enough to sacrifice himself to save him. True, one can't expect Melville to walk off into the sunset arm and arm with another man (which Dirk Bogarde did in real life) -- this was 1961 after all and it's lucky the film was even made -- but some more self-acceptance on Melville's part would have been welcome. The ending was possibly meant to suggest that Melville would go on suppressing his "unfortunate urges" and retain a semblance of a marriage, supposedly "triumphing" over his homosexuality like one of those delusional "ex-gays" -- a notion that undercuts the more positive statements of the picture.

In fact, one might wonder why this "self-hating homo" would destroy his career and marriage when he doesn't exactly have an activist's bent. Why not just forget it, breath a sigh of relief and move on? It makes his burning of the photo even more senseless. Victim may be trying to show how a glib, dishonest man can summon up inner strength and resolve -- indeed that's surely what the film is suggesting -- but the ending needed to be much stronger. It is also unfortunate that it is the married closet case who takes on the blackmailers, when all the other gay men -- who seem far more accepting of themselves -- all just want to pay them off. (This is completely unfair to the many activists who existed on both sides of the Atlantic even during the sixties.) I also wish more had been made of the confrontation between Melville and the bookseller Harold Doe (Norman Bird), who was previously involved with Jack and blames Melville for his death. Melville's reaction is rather cold, but one could argue that there's a coldness, or at least a coolness, not only to Melville but to the whole movie.

Bogarde was an understandably closeted gay man in real life, and it was brave of him to take on this role, which could have destroyed his own career. As he later noted, it did serve to get him away from the superficial "pretty boy" roles and led to much meatier parts, for which he was grateful. As for his performance in Victim, it's good, but not as great as in other films, perhaps because he was confused as exactly how to play the part, and because of the improbability of his character doing what he does in the first place. Sylvia Sims is first-rate as his loving but disillusioned and heartbroken wife, and there are notable turns from McEnery as Jack; Charles Lloyd Pack [The 3 Worlds of Gulliver] as the tragic barber, Henry; Dennis Price [Dear Murderer] as the actor Calloway; Donald Churchill as Jack's friend, Eddy Stone; Margaret Diamond as the hateful Miss Benham; and others previously mentioned or not. An interesting aspect of the picture is that Victim unfolds as a thriller or suspense film, with much information -- such as the reasons for the blackmail -- being withheld from the audience for quite some time.

Verdict: Whatever its flaws -- and that ending! -- Victim is a memorable film and a landmark in gay cinema. ***.

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