Author: John Coldstream
The BFI’s latest release in their Film Classics series is a film that celebrates its 50th anniversary – Victim. The book is released alongside another BFI monograph of a Dirk Bogarde film, The Servant (1963). But it was Victim that changed the course of Bogarde’s career and would lead to the aforementioned film, Accident (1967), Death in Venice (1971) and a host of other European films. The London we witness in Victim is one that is recognizable today, but is noirishly shot in dark tones by Otto Heller; we can see such familiar places as the area between St. Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road, Cambridge Circus and the Salisbury Pub on St. Martin’s Lane. But the film is not just about London but was a ground breaking film about homosexuality. It can not be underestimated what a daring film this was and how the project threatened to ruin the careers of the films cast and crew, including Rank pin-up idol Bogarde. Fitting then that this book is written by John Coldstream, the biographer of Bogarde, editor of his memoirs and journals as well as being a personal friend which has helped elaborate Bogarde’s own feelings about the project, both at the time and in hindsight. The book also reveals that Bogarde would bind his scripts and have his own system for making notes and developing the character.
It is not until we are well into the film are we aware of why the young man at the beginning of the film known as Barrett (Peter McEnery) is running around London trying to escape from the police and looking for help where he can get it. It transpires that Barrett has stolen money from his place of work in order to pay off blackmailers. He attempts to contact a barrister he knows called Mel Farr (Bogarde) but he is ignoring his calls. Later after he is arrested Barrett hangs himself in his cell. The police then suspect that Barrett was being blackmailed because he was a homosexual and this was why Farr ignored his calls for fear that Barrett was trying to blackmail him. Farr then searches to uncover who these blackmailers are, even at the risk of his own promising career, as well as destroying the cover of his marriage to his beautiful wife (played by Sylvia Syms).
Essentially the film is a thriller set in the dark underworld of Soho with the West End providing a suitable backdrop for its driving story. The film was ground breaking for many reasons. Coldstream goes into recollections amongst others such as director Terence Davies impressions as a young man on seeing the film at a cinema in 1961 when the word homosexuality was said for the first time. The phrase “you could hear a pin drop” is phrased more than once. It was also a couple of other lines that would go on to court controversy during the scriptwriting process and later with the British Board of Film Censers led at the time John Treveleyan. There were a couple of lines in the confrontation between Farr and his wife where she is interrogating him about the truth of his relationship with Barrett in which she brings up a previous relationship he had and tries to understand the nature of his homosexuality: “You were attracted to that boy as a man would be to a girl!” which would then lead to Farr retorting: “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him!” Powerful stuff indeed. Especially for the date the film was made. At the end of his book Coldstream tackles the impressions the film made on a contemporary audience, but it is in the first chapter in which he looks at the immediate legacy of the film. In 1961 men were still being imprisoned for homosexuality, crimes against nature as it was sometimes termed. Despite Coldstream’s assertions that the film was in part responsible for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, I suspect much of the films dialogue was expressing a softening attitude that was already prevalent in the zeitgeist. Whichever it is this was a brave film to make and yet also makes for a good old fashioned black and white British crime thriller.