Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Groundbreaker: Victim
Few contemporary audiences have even heard of this 1961 British thriller–the first movie ever to invoke use of the term “homosexual.” The great Dirk Bogarde (who was gay in real life) stars as Melville Farr, a successful lawyer living in London with his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms)…and a closeted gay man. When Boy, his former boyfriend (Peter McEnery), approaches him for money, Melville expresses the requisite skepticism. Then he learns of a much larger blackmail plot over a picture of he and Boy in an intimate embrace. Unable to turn to the police, as homosexuality was sill a crime at the time, Melville vows to destroy his blackmailers by helping their other victims. On his journey into the underworld, Melville must dodge his blackmailers and the police or risk total ruin.
Victim did in 1961 what it would take American films, television, and even the stage years to do: portray a sympathetic gay protagonist. Director Basil Dearden shoots the film in film noir style, using the long, rich shadows of black and white photography to create an atmosphere of danger and suspense. It helps too that Dearden has Bogarde–one of the great, underrated actors–in the lead, giving one of his best performances. As a gay man himself, Bogarde understood the pain and repression of his character, not to mention the pressures of hiding his sexuality from the public. More importantly, he doesn’t fall into the trap of making Melville into a pathetic character. Rather, he plays the role as a fundamentally good man, not ashamed of who he is or who he loves, but frightened by life in a hostile world.
Victim may not have the affirmation or sexual charge of latter-day gay films, but that doesn’t make it any less important, or any less powerful. It’s an essential film in the Queer Cinematic Canon, one that features a stellar performance by Bogarde, and one that still deserves to be seen.
Streams on Amazon & YouTube.
I think Ghost Ship, made in 1943, is more like the first gay thriller. Watching that movie with its sly innuendos is fascinating.
This was an extremely brave film to make in 1961 for Bogarde and the producers–and a great film to boot. It runs on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. Bogarde himself had a male life partner but never came out publicly beyond his circle of friends. But his work–including in “The Servant” and many other films–showed he had tremendous range while being at the time a matinee idol.
I’ve seen this film and its quite good. Certainly pretty out there for the time it was made.
It’s also worth noting that Victim had a degree of impact on the push for homosexual law reform in the UK,
It most certainly did have an enormous impact on changing the law and some say was I instrumental in bringing about the Wolfenden committee enquiry that recommended making homosexual acts in private legal in Britain. Which became law in 1968. Pity Dirk Bogarde never came out in real life.
M’y only criticism of the film is that all the gay characters are middle aged men, Bogarde’s ex apart, making it unrealistic.
It’s a great film!! a must see
The entire film can be seen free on YouTube. Also on YouTube is a 2+ hour BBC documentary on his life (presented in two parts) called “The Private Dirk Bogarde.” It was made in 2001, two years after his death, and includes video from his long time partner.
GREAT movie! Have it on DVD. Hard to believe now but back in the 1960s to 1980s when this was shown on American TV all the references to homosexuality were cut out rendering the film incomprehensible! It wasn’t until the late 80s that it was shown uncut.
I couldn’t find it on Netflix. It’s available to rent on Prime for $3.99. I recall seeing it an liking it, but it’s been so long I could probably watch it again.
Never seen it, but will definitely check it out!
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