Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale. It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.
It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.
Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.
This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner. It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.
While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making. Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.
Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!
4 thoughts on “Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961”
Thanks for this- I’m glad the film is doing the (limited) rounds again. It stands up well as a superior example of the crime thriller genre and its emotional punches are still pretty startling today. I can’t remember the exact statistics but when the Wolfenden Report was first published the statistics for people opposed to a change in the law were very high. By the time this film had finished its wildly popular extended run, the percentages had practically reversed, with a majority now in favour of decriminalisation. It opened a great many eyes to the unfairness of the law and the sheer scale of incidences of blackmail.
Did you hear the play on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago about the protracted making of the film? Well worth a listen. Bogarde was itching to dismantle his pin-up status and take on more challenging roles. Had he not agreed to star in Victim he’d never have been offered The Servant and enjoyed the subsequent career he eventually had.
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Nice information, thank you! I didn’t hear the play on radio 3, but now that I have heard about it, I will look to see if I can get it on podcast or catch up. Cheers!
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