Thursday, January 26, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #1: Victim

Welcome, readers, to a new ten-part blog series! I've never undertaken anything like this before, but collaborations are always an exciting way to expand and challenge your own views on something. With that in mind, when my good friend James at Rants of a Diva suggested we try out a series, I jumped at the chance. What we've come up with is a ten-part series focusing on fifty years of films that focus on queer experience within Britain. For me, that's a dive into my own country's past, my adolescence, and current existence; for James, it's a look at what might be different, and what might be similar, on the other side of the Atlantic.


Our final destination is last year's lauded Weekend; our starting line, though, comes exactly fifty years before. It's 1961, and Dirk Bogarde, matinee idol, took a risk and starred as Melville Farr, a barrister with a secret life that blackmailers are keen to expose. The time was dark, and the film was Victim...

David: I think audiences need to watch Victim today with at least a sliver of context, because otherwise it is a bit of a fusty old drama, although I still reckon there's some value in it as a cinematic product in its own right. But first of all, anyway, some factual stuff. In 1961, homosexuality was illegal - straight up, a crime, go to jail, do not pass the local pub, do not collect your belongings. Victim might have been a mainstream kick up the arse of the law, but it was still six years before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexuality for consenting males over the age of 21. (It wasn't lowered to 18 until 1994, and equivalency with heterosexuality - age 16 - didn't come until 2000. That's, like, yesterday.) Critical literature seems to agree that Victim was the first mainstream British film focusing on a contemporary homosexual character - Serious Charge, a couple of years prior, dealt with accusations of pederasty by a vicar, but it was, unlike Victim, a fraudulent blackmail, and was also released under an X certificate. (And also shows its lack of historical importance by now being famous for Cliff Richard's first screen outing. Intentional pun.)

James: Context is crucial to understanding and evaluating Victim's impact on not only the representation of gays in cinema but also the gay rights movement in general. It's certainly tamer in comparison to modern gay films like Brokeback..., Milk or even crap like Eating Out, but people must understand that without Victim, many films, even ones we are discussing later on in this series, wouldn't have been possible. Victim, as best as it could in 1961, brought homosexuality out into the open and tackled it head on.

D: So then, being born out of this background, Victim is a landmark, a revolutionary statement, than merely a film. It had to make a point, and it had to be very careful about how it made it. So I think, with that it mind, that it's very hard to criticise the film, but at the same time, very hard to really appreciate it. It's so decidedly a product of its time that I can't really stick it with the kind of formal criticism I usually apply to films. Of course it can't really show us any sexual or romantic interactions between these characters; of course they all have to go around making their jittering their defining feature. Of course it has to - twice! - put heavy emphasis on heterosexual smooches, although I did read that more as an implicit criticism of being able to show that to such passionate extremes while the men can barely touch each other. (But then the ending comes and I have to wonder if I'm being too kind.)

"He hasn't got what you and I've got, Sylvie"
J: Actually, I was surprised looking at it again at just how open Victim is with the characters' homosexuality. Sure, modern audiences will notice how the film shies away in the beginning from referring to any of the characters as gay, merely hinting at how they are different from the others. But I saw this as a necessary function to the mystery that lies at the center of the film. Victim's hesitation about its homosexuality has more to do with setting up and discovering why Barrett is running from the cops and why Farr refuses to be in contact with him than because the film is nervous about labeling anyone as gay. While it's no "we're here, we're queer, get used to it," the rest of the film is almost shockingly (for its time, I must emphasise) transparent. The characters may be hiding from the law, but they are not hiding within the film. There are no shadows, no chiaroscuro, no film noir lighting and no blending in the mise-en-scene. I am especially intrigued by the way Victim shows how homosexuals are in every stratum of society. They are everywhere, rich and poor, high and low class. Your barber, your local shopkeeper, even your lawyer could be one.

Laura (Sylvia Syms) can't handle Farr's admissions
D: I did love the whip-crack of the line, "You know of course that he was a homosexual," spoken by the most senior policeman (John Barrie) - as you suggested, the film is surprisingly transparent, and this sudden exposure of the unspoken is very effective as an emotional rush. And Bogarde's admission of his sexual desire for Barrett (Peter McEnery) seems like an extreme the film didn't even need to go to, although of course I'm very glad it did. Victim doesn't suggest that homosexuality should be legalised and accepted by casting its gay characters as angelic, chaste people in love, but as humans who lust and desire just like heteros. Of course, it then turns around and places the sexless, platonic love between Bogarde and Sylvia Syms on a higher plane, but I really do sense the ending was a necessary evil, a measure that meant they could get away with actually speaking about actual homosex.

You say "no shadows, no chiaroscuro, no film noir lighting", but I think Victim definitely plays with these things, and it does so particularly strongly with Bogarde's character. He even seems to give himself dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in the climactic scene with Sylvia Syms, stepping nearer to the low lamps to cast shadows across his face, and as his temper builds, sweat combines with the lighting to bring out the stubble and dark recesses of his face. This plays out within the context of one particularly piqued scene, so it doesn't really apply to the grander depiction of repression across the whole film. But I would note a parallel visual play throughout - characters often seem to be framed as if they're trapped, caught, and this of course feeds back into the title. Whether within doorways, beneath ceilings or just closed onto by the frame of the camera itself - Bogarde is often captured in frozen, emotionally drawn close-ups - the gay characters aren't hiding because they keep getting found.

But we should definitely go into more detail with regards to Bogarde - I'd wager that his performance is the most successful aspect of the whole enterprise. Knowing how much of a fan you are, though, I'll let you take the floor...

Bogarde contorts his image
J: Not only its most successful, the most revolutionary aspect is the casting of Dirk Bogarde as the married barrister who risks his career and comfortable life by coming out of the closet and hunting down the blackmailers who drove his would-be lover to suicide. Although he would go on to become one of the most prominent English actors of the 60's, at that point in his career Dirk was merely a matinee idol known primarily for light comedies. Casting him as an admitted homosexual should have killed his career. Against all odds, however, it didn't and only adds to Victim's impact. Before this film, gay characters were always the limp-wristed fairies who bounced in and out of scenes with a thin moustache and a bitchy one-liner. But, in Victim, here comes this strong, attractive, heterosexual (or so we thought at the time) leading man playing a homosexual, shattering every stereotype and preconceived notion about gay men the movies had ever shown us. It was a bold move for both the film and Bogarde, and it pays off in aces for both. I make no mystery of my fondness for Mr. Bogarde, or Dirky as I affectionately refer to him, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I find him to be marvellous in Victim. It's not the bemused, smarmy Dirk we're used to in many of his best performances (The Servant, Darling, Our Mother's House). Instead, this is Dirk in full-on repression mode, scrambling to hide and push down every unwanted feeling and emotion that comes barrelling out of him. His voice and manner remain relatively steady throughout the film, but there are times when his face struggles to keep composure. I love the moments when you see the facade about to crack and his face twists and contorts itself to suppress any and every emotion spilling uncontrollably from him. It's like watching a sick person suppress the urge to vomit, or, even more uncomfortably, a drug addict resisting their drug of choice. Everything about this performance hints at what a great actor Dirky actually was, despite what his filmography to that point had suggested, and just how great he would become in the next couple decades.

There are two further points I am interested in discussing with you. First of all, what do you make of the title and its connotation with gay imagery in cinema up until that point (i.e. the gays as victims, whether of their own circumstance or as pariahs of society, and how, especially in American films, the gays must pay for their sins by dying)? Secondly, and you hinted at this before, what do you make of that final shot? It's an interesting way to end the film, particularly after Farr has supposedly "won" over the bad guys.

The final shot: memories of Barrett go up in flames
D: I think the title Victim is almost an early type of the linguistic reclamation that oppressed groups of society have undertaken in the years since. Obviously being a victim of any sort isn't a positive thing, but, with an immediate suggestion - even from the marquee outside the cinema - of gays as "victims", it can then set out a narrative for Bogarde's character that progresses from victim of blackmail and his private shame to a brazen declaration of his homosexual lust. The word "victim" doesn't only refer to their receipt of blackmail, or of the long arm of the law, but of their own shame as well - in Melville Farr, you have perhaps the first homosexual character in cinema who dared to risk everything and declare his sexuality. Obviously cases like Barrett's are tragic, but ultimately, what it took for homosexuality to be legalised was the courage of people like Farr to reject their inscribed status as victim.

It's interesting that you point out the tendency for gay characters to die "for their sins", because I wouldn't say Victim ever stoops to being that moralising - Barratt dies because he's terrified, but its at his own hands. The hairdresser's death isn't a tragic inevitability but a horrific abuse by a character who is villainized throughout. Victim actually seems to paint a society in which attitudes have already begun to change - the exchange between the police may be very blunt, but it also demonstrates a tolerance from within the legal system, years before the law itself followed suit. Perhaps that was a fantasy at the time, but I think the film could easily have been made with an unsympathetic policing force. Instead, Victim shows the way towards a better society from every side of the tracks.

Farr stands anxious, trapped, but strong
J: I absolutely agree with everything you said regarding the connotation of Victim's title. In a way, by portraying Farr as a strong individual risking everything to, as Oprah would put it, stand in his truth, the film takes back any negative association between being gay and their subsequent victimization. The title is almost ironic because by the time the blackmailers are captured, Farr, having given up everything for this moment, refuses to be a victim anymore.

But then the ending comes along and suggests that although he's perhaps not victimized by his homosexuality, Farr isn't ready to completely start his life over. He needs something, anything familiar as he faces a bleak and unpredictable future. And this is why he turns to his wife: she turned a blind eye to his homosexuality once and he assumes that she will do it again. I agree that this ending is probably a "necessary evil" for the time and place it was made, but I don't believe it's as cut and dry as many would interpret it. The dialogue suggests otherwise, but notice how neither of them look or sound particularly enthused about getting back together; it's as if they believe that that's what is expected of them. "I need you," Farr tells her. "Need is different from love," his wife responds. Even though the final image is of Farr burning the picture of him and Barrett, effectively destroying any remaining memory of that relationship, she realizes that they cannot go back as they once were. There will be another Barrett, as much as she and Farr will both try to deny it. As you mentioned, attitudes were changing and eventually there will be no reason to go on with the charade. Quite a sad realization for what is normally taken as an inevitable ending.

Sylvia Syms is not ready for her close-up
D: I suppose Sylvia Syms is featured so prominently as a palliative measure, to strengthen the audience interest, but as you intimate, that does come from a genuinely sociological place; she might be misguided in thinking she can change him, but society forced gays into those kind of relationships and the feelings of the women who are left behind and unhappy both because of the neglect during the marriage and the abandonment that will come as a result of legal changes are no less valid or tragic just because she's a heterosexual. And as you say, the ending speaks of a lingering sadness - Victim is trying to provoke changes, and the ending is one last motivation to get the audience mobilised in that direction.

If we haven't gone on long enough already, I'm intrigued to know your thoughts on the interactions and community of the various gay characters, including how Bogarde's character is forced to engage with it.

J: I was surprised by how abrupt and almost condescending Farr was towards the other homosexuals in the film. When he meets the barber, he gets straight to the point, acting like a macho hetero who only needs this puny little gay to get a lead on the case. And, later on, when he realizes that the three homosexual men live together, he gives his trademarked bemused grin and a sarcastic, "I see." He's not particularly harsh towards them, but he doesn't exactly act like they are on his level. In a way, he's a bit like Hugh Grant's character in Maurice. The idea of homosexuality makes perfect sense to him. But applying it to real life and living with one like man and wife is completely out of the question. It's beneath him, something only a boy with no class, like Rupert Graves' character, would consider. Farr thinks of himself as above these "common" homosexuals because he can control his impulses. It's an interesting choice for a character who is supposed to be the hero of the story, but it's easy to see why it was made in 1961. Victim was already revolutionary enough; there was no reason to push it beyond the point (straight) audiences would stop listening.

D: Your comparisons to Maurice are very apt, and perhaps a good way to end this entry - it may be set much earlier than Victim, but Maurice, made in 1987, chooses to focus away from this kind of tortured existence and instead creates a idyll where homosexuality can function. I'm sure it'll come up again during this series!

Speak up, readers; don't be a victim! What do you make of Victim's revolutionary attitudes?

Next take: Sunday Bloody Sunday

4 comments:

John said...

Fascinating read. I haven't seen this film but I intend to seek it out now. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

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