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Sat 14 Aug 2004 In: Movies

VICTIM UK, 1961, 1hr 40mins Dir: Basil Dearden Starring Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Sims I think it's a testament to the complacent era of gay rights we're living in that the audience at the recent screening of Victim I attended seemed to find it funny. But what perhaps is considered a melodramatic scenario was a frightening reality for us in Britain in the early sixties. Being gay was not only a far more crippling social stigma than it is today, it was a crime, punishable by imprisonment. This law was not repealed until six years after Victim's release, and perhaps the snickering audience members should remember that New Zealand, for all its progressiveness, didn't pass homosexual law reform until 1985. So while gays in Britain were enjoying relative freedom and trying to resist the leg-warmer craze, scenarios similar to that portrayed in Victim were being silently played out on our very doorstep, and far more recently than the events depicted in this “quaint little movie”. And what of the movie? Removed from the controversy it caused upon its release, and viewed in a modern light, Victim is still a daring piece of film-making that moves far beyond the ‘issue' film that has become staple fare for American TV movies nowadays. It opens with a young man on the run from the police. He calls on friend after friend, but no-one is willing to help. We learn that he is not being chased for homosexual offences, but because he has stolen money from the construction firm that he works for. The money was stolen to pay a blackmailer who had taken compromising photos of the man and his lover, high-profile barrister Melville Farr. After the young man hangs himself to avoid having the truth interrogated out of him by police, Farr sets out to track down the blackmailer and shut him down, whatever the cost. The portrayal of gay men in this picture is astonishing, light years ahead of the comic relief queens, evil child molesters and self-loathing mental cases that Hollywood was dishing out. There are young men and old, all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. The only thing they share in common, besides being gay, is a stomach-churning fear of being discovered – something that we all should be able to relate to. Only the consequences of coming out were far more horrible for these men. Blackmail was a lucrative business pre-law reform, and gays were easy targets. There is a scene with the blackmailer towards the end of the picture in his darkroom developing his photos. He is totally caught up in the adrenalin rush of what he is doing, invading people's privacy and taking clandestine snaps in the hope of a quick buck. The pointer towards where men like this ended up working post-law reform is unmistakable and rather chilling with the hindsight of history. This is a must-see picture, not because of some guilt trip obligation of remembering how things once were (as we only need to remember the gay Berlin of the twenties and thirties to be reminded that no freedom is set in stone), but because it is a great thriller, with powerful performances, a compelling story and an inimitable sense of style. Chris Banks - 14th August 2004    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Saturday, 14th August 2004 - 12:00pm

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