Released less than a year after Dearden’s jaunty heist caper The League of Gentlemen (1960), Victim (1961) is an entirely different prospect, with its exploration of homosexuality and prejudice in middle-class Kensington placing it at the other end of the spectrum. Rather than demonising or glamorising homosexuality, Victim concentrates on its taboo status and attempts to bring it out in to the open.
Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a homosexual barrister being blackmailed by a young man. The situation is further complicated when the young man is arrested and commits suicide in prison. A train of events is set in motion that requires Farr to ‘come out’ or face the consequences. Given that he is a highly successful career man whose rise through the legal ranks has now become jeopardised, Farr must attempt to track down the blackmailers who have made a fortune by profiting from salacious photographs of public figures.
This is a compelling work by Dearden, who opts to film much of this social document as a kind of film noir thriller. Otto Heller’s cinematography accentuates the shadow world of nocturnal London, frequently obscuring the characters behind walls or shadows. This seems a portrait of Britain ill at ease with anything other than normality, showing revulsion or dismay in events at home or at work. ‘Homosexual’ is rarely used; instead, by necessity or choice, writers Janet Green and John McCormick vary between ‘invert’, ‘weakness’, or the still-shocking ‘queer’ daubed in white letters on a garage door. The subject is treated intelligently though, and is at least brave enough to acknowledge homosexuality as a way of life in 1960s London.
Mention should be made of Sylvia Sims, who excels as Farr’s wife. Initially repelled by her husband’s revelations, she become sympathetic and supportive. Dearden’s clever touch is to have a framed picture of her on Farr’s desk which seems ever so slightly enlarged. Her insistent presence, even when off-screen, is a telling reminder of the Farr’s duality as well as the selflessness of her support.
Yet Bogarde is the key here, and the film will succeed or fail on the back of his performance. Fortunately, he is quite superb, at once repulsed and unapologetic about his lifestyle. As usual, he oozes charm, wearing suits fitted to within an inch of their lives and sporting a wonderfully crafted hairstyle. His beauty is further accentuated by the thin shafts of light than frequently fall across his face in some scenes – on the one hand catching the sparkle of his eyes, on the other indicating some form of other-worldliness. It was a brave role for him to take, to move out of the comfortable straitjacket of Doctor in the House (1954) into the murkier realms of sexual drama. In many ways, his brave performance in Victim marks the transition from sculptured matinee idol to tortured deviant that would result in the hauntingly elegiac Death in Venice (1971) and the unremittingly bleak The Night Porter (1973).