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.

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