Drama films

Victim at 60: The heartbreaking gay drama that pushed the boundaries | Drama films

Tseven minutes into Victim’s debut, after a few detours around the bush, word fell into the dialogue – an unprecedented bombshell on screen at the time, and if that doesn’t shock you today, you can still feel the film prepare for impact. This is neither an insult nor a blasphemy, but it was enough to make the public wince and to bristle the censors: in 1961, the simple word “homosexual” was more dangerous than an empty curse. His brutal appearance in Victim allowed the British film to fall first into the hands of American censors. The British Board of Film Censors let it pass with an X rating, although it objected to another harmless piece of dialogue, when one man said of another, “I wanted it.” Sixty years ago, the love that dared not pronounce his name began – as discreetly and politely as possible, while maintaining a certain frankness – to mumble it.

That the victim was made and seen at all in such an insane mood of moral panic is remarkable. That Basil Dearden’s film remains, six decades later, a vital queer text, despite all its compromises and socially ingrained infractions, is a miracle, even if it demands some perspective and forgiveness on the part of the contemporary viewer. A few years ago, Victim was re-released in British cinemas; one of my young gay colleagues saw it and was appalled. ” It is so homophobiche said with a shudder. Dearden and his collaborators would have been horrified by the accusation, having made a film in 1961 that was a new benchmark in his acceptance and understanding of homosexual characters. But my colleague wasn’t entirely wrong either: Victim is perhaps most touching as a snapshot of the extent to which the mid-century homosexual was (or had not) come to accept himself. , in the midst of a plethora of laws and popular speeches which threw him, with more or less compassion, like an aberration of nature.

“If the law punished every anomaly, we would be very busy,” a police detective told his aggressively fanatical colleague at the start of the procedure, after the latter wondered aloud why “they” couldn’t just carry out an investigation. normal life to start with. As covenant expressions fade away, it is on the lukewarm side – homosexuality is presented throughout Victim as an anomaly, a setback, an unfortunate condition to deal with, even though it was still illegal. (for six years) under the Sexual Offenses Act. , the filmmakers would have found it difficult to present it otherwise in mainstream entertainment. “Nature played a dirty trick on me,” complains a gay secondary character in the film; The victim dares to express his sympathy for this point of view, but keeps his tacit disagreement.

It is certainly a film as chaste as it has ever been on indecency: the “sex” in parentheses in the embarrassing word “homosexuality” goes so far as to recognize the physical relationships between men. Dirk Bogarde protagonist Melville Farr, a top London lawyer, is portrayed as a gay man who has never acted according to his forbidden wishes. That he has already had sex with Laura (Sylvia Syms), his patient beard of a gently delusional wife, with whom he has no children, is a detail that remains for us to ponder. When involved in a blackmail plot targeting an assortment of gay men locked up across the capital (starting, fatally, with Boy Barrett, played by Peter McEnery, the young object of Farr’s affection), the gun smoking isn’t particularly salacious: Blackmailers are in possession of a candid snapshot of a fully clothed Farr consoling a weeping, fully clothed Barrett.

The photography is tender, not explicit; as one lawyer points out, if the young man weren’t crying, it wouldn’t be incriminating, which tells you all about the climate of macho paranoia in which the film was shot. The filmmakers, for their part, treat the shot timidly, like a volatile MacGuffin: that one never gets a clear view of it all seems at first glance a timid dodge. Yet this capricious perspective ultimately hints at the real taboo addressed in his story: it’s not the “unnatural” fact that men have sex that offends the bad guys the most here, but the possibility of emotional intimacy. sustained between them – a force more difficult to control.

“Why should I live outside the law because I’ve found love the only way I can?” Asks another victim of the blackmailers, ahead of the now ubiquitous slogan “love is love” by a few decades. (Producer Michael Relph put it more flavorfully, describing the film as “a story not of glands but of love.”) Still, there is a difference. Whereas today the emphasis on love over sex in gay rights discourse is often a remedial measure, calculated to cater to heterosexual skeptics at their emotional level, in Victim c ‘ is a further provocation, a suggestion that homosexuality runs deeper than the thrill of the illicit – and therefore a more piercing threat to social norms that a withered law barely held in place.

In those respects, Victim is a film clearly designed for straight audiences, patiently begging them to open their minds, even if that slightly means patronizing its gay characters (and potential viewers) in the process. A straight male audience to this I should add: What is perhaps the most dated about Victim today is not his accidental homophobia but his sharp misogyny, as virtually every female character (aside from the female aggrieved and minauded by Syms and the haggish barf of Mavis Villiers) are a mouthpiece for the most viciously hating gay-hating opinions in society. Laura’s reward for supporting her man, meanwhile, is the promise of continued, asexual companionship: perhaps with the sensibilities of the censors, Victim’s dark plot to fight criminal homophobia folds into one. pretzel to end in a scene of a man (a gay one, but whatever) declaring his undying need for his wife. Sixty years, in case you haven’t noticed, that was a very long time ago.

Peter McEnery. Photography: Alamy Stock Photo

And even. This victim retains an exciting thrill of queer subversion largely boiled down to one extraordinary performance by Bogarde – working on a different plane of suggestiveness and nuance than most of his co-stars, in large part because he was playing his own. split between public and private life. One of cinema’s most defining queer stars, Bogarde himself has never stepped out, even through multiple volumes of an autobiography that portrays his long-term romance with manager Anthony Forwood as the most popular male friendship. intimately platonic imaginable. Bogarde simply had too much to lose by stepping out, even after being headliner for Victim (in a role already turned down by James Mason and Stewart Granger by the time it happened to him) cost the actor his life forever. uncluttered idol status in the morning. . It was the best thing that could have happened to him, marking a succession of fascinating queer and queer coded roles in quirky films – from Darling to Death in Venice, from The Servant to Despair – that have shaped his on-screen heritage more than one of the straight romantic tracks that came before.

Son Farr is therefore an immaculate study of homosexuality hidden in plain sight, a crisp and brittle performance rich in self-isolating gestures and eager looks that go unnoticed by the heterosexual men around him: watch for the smirk of approval that momentarily brushes his face when his investigations lead him to a three-man house, or the curious, cruise-ship gropings he extinguishes even in the face of the most menacing weight of blackmailers. (The thug prefers tight leather and has a framed photo of Michelangelo’s David in his apartment: the victim doesn’t always live up to his leader’s levels of subtlety.)

These are the intuitive, almost invisible cues that even the most gifted straight actors often fail to play when playing queer roles: a scene between Bogarde and alleged bisexual Dennis Price, while another targeted gay man, positively sparkles with mutual recognition and combat. empathy. It is as a showcase for an inclusive and play-recognized gay performance that Victim could be the most enduring, exhilarating, and unusual – even if the film and its brilliant star couldn’t lay claim to so much to it. ‘era.


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