Don't let the title mislead you. Victim is about a man who is anything but helpless. Dirk Bogarde, in a career-defining role, plays a highly respected, but closeted, attorney who risks his marriage and reputation to bring to justice an elusive blackmail ring terrorizing gay men (exposure then meant not only disgrace but prison), and which caused the young man he loved to commit suicide. In the early 1960s, director Basil Dearden's Victim was perhaps the most daring film yet to appear on the British screen. A surprise hit at the box office, many regard it as the work that finally stirred Parliament to begin amending Britain's draconian laws against "homosexual acts."
Historical importance aside, Victim still holds up as a taut and entertaining thriller, with excellent performances and some striking cinematography. After more than 40 years, actor Dirk Bogarde's protagonist remains one of the screen's few out and out gay heroes. He gives a richly nuanced, and powerful, performance. The film uses an unusual structural device: Melville Farr (Bogarde) and Jack Barrett (hauntingly played by Peter McEnery), the young man who loves him and whom he loves, never appear together onscreen. In fact, the first quarter of the film involves Jack's increasingly frantic attempts to contact the nervous Farr, who dodges him every way he can. While that "non-meeting" certainly upped the comfort level for many, it also provides a unique dramatic strength. Here absence is powerful in its suggestiveness. And as the film unfolds, we never forget that Farr's single-minded mission - in his role as part lovesick man, part avenging angel - is to bring to justice the blackmailers who drove Jack to kill himself.
As played by the handsome Peter McEnery, Jack comes across as a likable guy, unpretentious and authentic. We never doubt his feelings for Farr, or his genuine affection for the middle-aged men in love with him. And although Jack dies within the first half hour, he dominates the film, causing not only Farr but, on some level, the audience to ask, What injustice caused this affable young man to kill himself?
And that puts all of British society, both gay and straight, on trial. But it also causes the film's only dramatic limitation when, in the second half, polemics takes over. It tries to show the broad impact of homophobia on the widest possible socioeconomic range of characters, from both the straight and gay worlds. There are simply too many people, representing too many permutations of class and taste. However, there are some very powerful scenes, especially between Farr and his wife Laura (played with emotional complexity by the beautiful Sylvia Syms), as they work out the new contours of their marriage. But overall the film's second half was less effective than its first.
In the opening hour, Dearden brilliantly used cinematic means - expressive lighting, slightly off-kilter compositions, propulsive narrative rhythms, and jazzy music - to explore character and theme (all captured superbly in the DVD transfer). In the first half, I saw and felt what it was like to live in that tense world, while in the second half, I heard characters tell me about it.
Still, I highly recommend this film, not only for its historical importance to both GLBT cinema and rights, but because it is an engrossing, well acted and often strikingly shot film. And although the legal and social situation of GLBT people has improved markedly in the past four decades, there is still much emotional truth and insight in this landmark film.