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...
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"|
|Laura (Sylvia Syms) can't handle Farr's admissions|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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