Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 262 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Basil Dearden’s Victim.
Here is a film dealing with homosexuality at a time when being gay was still punishable as a crime. On its release in the United Kingdom in 1961 it proved controversial and was initially banned in the United States. It wasn’t until the 1967 Sexual Offenses Act – several years after this film was released – that homosexual acts between consenting male adults became legal in England and Wales. When this film was made blackmail was still very much a real threat for public figures attempting to hide their homosexual identity.
- Director: Basil Dearden
- Writer: Janet Green, John McCormick
- Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery
Set in Britain during the 1950’s, the plot involves Melville Farr (Bogarde), a successful public man with a thriving legal practice, well on his way to becoming a judge. Mr. Farr is married to his wife, Laura (Syms). A young man named Barrett (Peter McEnery) is revealed to have had an “emotional” relationship with Mr. Farr, and is being blackmailed for money because of pictures detailing their relationship. Mr. Farr ignores Barrett’s attempt to reach him, forcing Barrett to seek the help of others and causing him to steal in order to pay off the blackmailing group. Barrett is forced to make a tough decision when he senses that law enforcement officials are bound to discover Mr. Farr’s secret. Before long, Mr. Farr decides to fight back and as things spin out of control Mr. Farr is forced to answer questions at home, complicating matters further. With his back against the wall, Mr. Farr must decide whether or not to supply evidence that will bring down the blackmailers, which would risk his career in the process.
It is rare in movies to explore a discussion where a husband must reveal a “fondness” for another man. In fact, while a German film used the term “homosexual” in 1919 (Anders als die Andern), this is the first English language film to use the word “homosexual”. The scene where Mr. Farr reveals his secret to his wife packs a good punch in terms of emotional weight, it feels real. Mrs. Farr’s questions seem logical, and her insistence on getting answers forces Mr. Farr to acknowledge his secret relationship with Barrett. While their discussion doesn’t go into the nuts and bolts, their exchange is loaded with serious implications, with each line of dialogue important coded information. If only this film had more emotionally charged but subtle scenes like this.
The fact that homosexuality remains a hot topic in mainstream politics and a serious crime in most Middle Eastern nations, you have to respect the boldness of this film being made at the start of the 1960’s – Victim even predates the sexual revolution. In researching this film, I learned that Israel was the only country in the Middle East to show the uncensored version of the film, even though there are no graphic scenes of homosexuality. In fact, there is not a single kiss in the entire film. But I had a hard time getting into this film, aside from understanding the seriousness of the subject at hand.
With the mere acceptance of his role, Dirk Bogarde challenged his fame. He was one of the most popular British stars of the 1950′s, and Mr. Bogarde seemed to be on the cusp of breaking into Hollywood at the time of Victim, but the move resulted in career suicide. Being gay himself , it seems Bogarde didn’t hesitate in taking the role, and you have to respect a man who takes a job to defend his personal convictions, regardless of the backlash.
Brief Words to Mr. Ebert: Mr. Ebert, I agree when you say that this movie proceeds on two levels, “as a crime thriller and as a character study”. However, while I can see this dual nature in theory, I do not agree when you say that it “entertains”, despite the fact that the film was made into a thriller and a police procedural to increase its appeal. This is one of those films whose value is found mostly in its historical context. And I very much enjoyed reading about the context in which you place the film. But, while the historical significance is part of the reason to watch this film, it is not a film that is easy to watch, not because it has homosexuality as the subject matter (I think Brokeback Mountain should have won Best Picture over Crash in 2005 for starters), but because it’s too stuffy as a dialogue-heavy drama, and as a crime thriller it feels flat. As you say “there’s a good deal of indirection in the clever script, concealing motives, misdirecting our suspicions, misleading our expectations, and finding truth and dignity in the scenes between Farr and his wife”. But while I theoretically agree with this, I wasn’t moved enough. I felt it was almost a bit too self aware of its own importance, ultimately failing to sustain a level of “realness” that is achieved in one or two scenes.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Victim? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Detour