Coming at a time when homosexuality was considered illegal and a punishable offence, Basil Dearden’s daring and groundbreaking British film Victim examines a serious and taboo subject matter in the guise of a police procedural or suspense drama, if you will. Some of the actors, including Dirk Bogarde and Dennis Price (who was the lead in the British black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets), were closet homosexuals and agreeing to act in a film such as this was seen as a brave attempt on their parts. Bogarde picked this film right when he was beginning to get noticed by Hollywood and was cautioned against it by his casting agent.
He did it regardless and this makes him no different than the character he plays in it, Melville Farr. Instead of backlash, the film was received well and only further cemented his status as a matinee idol. He would go on to star in two other critically acclaimed British films of the 60s, The Servant in 1963 and Accident in 1967. The film made a plea to bring amendments to the laws concerning homosexuals and the lawmakers did indeed listen to it as the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was implemented, which stipulated that homosexual acts were allowed in private between two men who have reached the age of 21.
The film revolves around a group of homosexual men who are being blackmailed by a racket operating out of London. Bogarde plays Melville Farr, an attorney who also happens to be a closet homosexual. One of his former lovers, a young construction site worker named Barrett has been a victim of blackmail and is being sought by the police for stealing funds from his office, evidently to pay the blackmailers. He is soon arrested while trying to get out of town. When Farr arrives at the police station, he learns that Barrett has killed himself. A devastated Farr learns that Barrett was being blackmailed about his past relationship with Farr. Enraged, he resolves to bring the perpetrators to justice and goes around looking for anyone else who might have been put through a similar predicament.
He comes across an old hairdresser and also a stage actor named Falloway (played by Dennis Price). The hairdresser dies of a heart attack when the blackmailers tries to pressure to him to talk about what he could have possibly told to Farr about this whole affair. In the meantime Falloway, although initially reluctant, finds a way to contact Farr through a mutual friend who also happens to be a closet homosexual. Both of them suggest that they pay the ransom demand but Farr is unwilling and proceeds to find out about the blackmailers by all means necessary. Farr knows that embarking on something dangerous as this would possibly put an end to his career as well as his marriage but he continues anyway. When his wife reads about Barrett’s suicide in the papers, she questions him about it and Farr has no option but to come clean about his relationship with Barrett.
Farr’s wife apparently knows everything about his past and reminds him of a former affair of his with a man that took place before their marriage. He tells her that he ended his relationship with Barrett because he “wanted him”. This confession naturally brings a conflict into their marriage and after a discussion with her brother, she begins to reconsider her life again with Farr. Meanwhile, Farr’s investigation is made easier by the liberal-minded police captain who seems to be against these harsh laws that criminalize and damage the lives of anyone who is a homosexual and is of the opinion that people have the right to live the way they want to.
There is an interesting conversation that takes place between him and his sergeant that reveals to us where each men stand on this issue. His sergeant is a puritan and thinks that if these laws are amended in the favor of homosexuals, other “weaknesses” are bound to follow. The captain smartly retorts that even puritanism used to be considered illegal at one point. It should be noted that the sexual orientation of the blackmailers themselves are left ambiguous and there are enough clues in the film to suggest the possibility that they too could be homosexuals. The screenplay has been crafted in a manner that makes it accessible and engaging to both gay and straight audiences. The chiaroscuro black-and-white cinematography serves to add an extra dimension to an already compelling and well-directed film.