Wednesday 16 August 2017

Victim (UK 1961: Dir Basil Dearden) - notes from an introduction to a screening of the film at East Dulwich Picturehouse 15 August 2017

“It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three.”

That was Dirk Bogarde writing about the film Victim in 1979. A further 38 years of ‘permissiveness’ in society has taken place since those words were written, which makes it very difficult today to appreciate just what a risky, brave and powerful film Victim was.

Two separate events were responsible for the film’s genesis and eventual release.

The first was the publication of the Wolfenden report, or to give it its proper title, The Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution; published in 1957, the result of a three year long enquiry, its intention was to bring about the repeal of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made any homosexual acts between men illegal. It was an Act that was still being rigorously enforced by the Police in the 1950s, encouraged by overzealous politicians; between 1953 and 1954, for example, over two thousand men had been prosecuted and gaoled for offences under the Act. This meant that homosexuals, particularly high profile ones, were vulnerable to people aiming to make money out of their sexual orientation remaining secret. The Act therefore became known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’ and it was reported at one point that 90% of all blackmail cases that came to court involved the persecution of gay men – you’ll hear both of these facts mentioned in the film tonight.

The second event was the appointment of John Trevelyan as Secretary to the British Board of Film Censors in 1958. His tenure at the BBFC ushered in a more liberal approach to film censorship and, at a time when film makers would routinely have to submit their scripts to the Censors before any filming was done, a more collaborative style of working alongside the film making community. Importantly, Trevelyan’s view on films with direct homosexual themes, rather than being banned outright (which was the BBFC’s prior stance), was that they should be allowed for submission to the Censor provided that the subject matter was handled ‘responsibly.’

Victim’s director Basil Dearden was no stranger to controversy. His 1950 film Port of London contained the first interracial relationship in a British film. Eight years later he directed Violent Playground, whose subject matter was juvenile delinquency in Liverpool; and in 1959, along with Victim’s producer Michael Relph, he made Sapphire, a crime film with a largely black cast, its subject matter triggered by the 1958 Notting Hill riots.

Dearden’s scriptwriter on Sapphire was Janet Green, and it was Green who, with her husband John McCormick, came up with the story which would eventually be developed into Victim’s final script. It was inspired equally by the Wolfenden Report – or more particularly the fact that after its publication there was widespread debate but little legislative action – and the reality of the continued blackmailing of gay men; this became the core of the story, with successful QC Melville Farr (played by Dirk Bogarde) becoming embroiled in a blackmailing ring and risking both his career and exposure as a homosexual to take action against the blackmailers. The film started life under the name Boy Barrett, after the young clerk who is blackmailed over his association with Farr. It was changed to the more immediate one word title against Green’s wishes.

Dearden and Relph approached a number of actors for the lead role, including Jack Hawkins, Stewart Granger and James Mason, who for various reasons were unable to accept the part of the QC, originally designed to be an older character. Deciding to reduce Farr’s age and making him someone who has just made silk, they approached Dirk Bogarde. The actor – real name Derek Jules Gaspard Ulric Niven van den Bogaerde  - was coming to the end of his contract with Rank, who had marketed him throughout the 1950s as the clean cut ‘idol of the Odeons,’ with some success. But Bogarde was keen to take on roles which moved him away from a youthful image – he was nearly 40, after all. So he jumped at the opportunity that Victim gave him, even though he knew that being included in the film carried enormous risks, which would probably lose him a lot of his fanbase. He may also have trusted Dearden after the director gave Dirk an early role as cop killer Tom Riley in the 1950 movie The Blue Lamp.

Bogarde threw himself into the part, preparing detailed character notes and contributing to the script – in fact, one of his criticisms was that Farr wasn’t homosexual enough; and he had a point; in Victim homosexuals are treated either as objects of pity or revulsion, but it's left to the supporting cast to personify any specific 'gayness.' Bogarde himself rewrote the key scene in which his wife Laura (a rather underdeveloped role for Sylvia Sims) confronts him about his relationship with Barrett, and it was this scene, with its doubly delivered "I WANTED him!" which gave Trevelyan as Censor one of his biggest headaches, even though it's disclosed that Farr didn't act on his desires.  

Shooting of Victim took ten weeks, starting in February 1961 with a budget of just over £150,000; it premiered in September 1961, with Trevelyan awarding it an X certificate with only minor dialogue trims, effectively over-ruling his colleagues on the Committee.

But Relph and Dearden were worried. Their previous movie, the rather clunky sci-fi comedy Man in the Moon starring Kenneth More, performed poorly both critically and at the box office. Also, the backlash received by Michael Powell following the release of his film Peeping Tom in 1960 showed exactly what could happen when film makers misread the mood of the critics and the viewing public.

But they needn’t have worried – press reaction overall was positive, and it did very well at the box office (making a profit of around £50,000, although only half that of Sapphire). Sadly it wasn’t welcomed with open arms in America. The MPAA insisted on the removal of the word ‘homosexual’ to guarantee a commercial release, but Dearden and Relph refused; so Victim was denied the MPAA Seal of Approval, killing any hope of commercial business, and was relegated to art house screenings only.

So the final question: did Victim achieve its aims, as Relph and Green hoped, to help the cause of the Wolfenden report? It’s difficult to say how much influence the movie had on the post Wolfenden debate, but it was the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’ and some of the script of the film sounds like it’s lifted direct from Wolfenden, so it’s reasonable to assume that it would have taken the issue to a much wider audience. What we do know is that, ten years after the publication of that report, in 1967 the Sexual Offences Bill was finally enacted, which provided that for men over 21 a homosexual act in private was no longer a criminal offence. It wasn’t an acceptance of homosexuality – far from it, police arrests continued after the Bill became law - but was at least a move in the right direction.

Enjoy the film.

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