Published: 17 July 2005 Dirk Bogarde had it exactly right about Victim. In his autobiography, Snakes and Ladders (1978), he looked back on 1961 and said, "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."

Victim, re-issued this month, is not a great film; it is not as revelatory as The Servant, the picture Bogarde made in 1963. No matter. "Janet Green's modest, tight, neat little thriller, for that is all it was fundamentally, might not have been Shaw, Ibsen, or Strindberg, but it did at least probe and explore a hitherto forbidden Social Problem, simply, clearly, and with great impact for the first time in an English-speaking film."

Until 1966 and the Wolfenden Report, homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal in Britain. There were prosecutions and Sunday newspapers that gave space to the court reports. Yet, by 1960, the police were as relaxed as possible over the old laws. There was a feeling that the code violated decent liberty. But police restraint did not deter the menace of blackmail.

Dirk Bogarde in "Victim"

The bleak little story of Victim concerns a successful solicitor, Melvin Farr (Bogarde), who has a thriving London practice. He is likely to take silks; and people are already talking of a judgeship. He is apparently happily married to a wife played by Sylvia Syms, who was in those days one of the most attractive leading ladies in British film.

But Farr is approached, in desperation, by "Boy" Barrett (Peter McEnery), one of his former lovers. Farr rebuffs the approach and not long afterwards Barrett hangs himself in a police cell.

Alan Howard as Frank in "Victim"

The vicious blackmailing ring closes in, and Farr becomes their most notable victim. His marriage is nearly destroyed. But Farr agrees to help the police, to give evidence in court, no matter that the worst Sunday papers will destroy his career.

When the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden first approached Bogarde, they warned him that a lot of people had already turned down the script - because the material might be dangerous or unwholesome. Bogarde in 1960 was 39, and just about the most popular star in British films. He had proven himself playing war heroes (The Sea Shall Not Have Them; Ill Met by Moonlight); he was the centrepiece in the hugely successful Doctor in the House series; and he was a reliable romantic lead in movies like A Tale of Two Cities. He was flirting with a larger, Hollywood career - playing Liszt in Song Without End. Bogarde was also a confirmed homosexual, happily "married" to his business manager, Tony Forward, though compelled every now and then to be seen in public with attractive young women to divert suspicion.

Bogarde seems not to have hesitated over the role of Farr. Similarly, Sylvia Syms never flinched from the part of his wife, though apparently several actresses had turned it down. Not that Victim is a complete picture. There is a central compromise in that Farr seems to have outlived his homosexual past and to be genuinely in love with his wife. Their marriage survives, even if Farr's career is shot. Bogarde gives a very moving performance, but he never took the opportunity to admit, or even to hint, that he and Farr had things in common. On the other hand, Victim served to separate the star from his fond, young following and to pave the way for The Servant, Darling, Modesty Blaise, Accident, Justine, The Damned, Death in Venice and The Night Porter.

Granted a proper sense of history, the tight little thriller stands up pretty well. Otto Heller's black-and-white photography captures the wintry gloom of London. The cast is rich in supporting performances (look for Dennis Price, Nigel Stock, Hylton Edwards), and we are left in no doubt about the suspicion and paranoia induced by the laws against homosexual behaviour. Equally, the film misses (or ignores) the tremendous dark, theatrical humour of the gay community.

But there's a coda to the story that is unexpected or depressing. Dirk Bogarde had taken a brave step, and he had assisted in the making of an authentic film of protest - part of the mood that would soon liberalise the law. Bogarde was also established in other ways by the time of his death, in 1999. He was by then a respected actor; a successful writer (both memoirs and novels); and someone knighted by the Queen. But to the very end, Sir Dirk lacked the inner freedom to admit to his own emotional life. In other words, the repressive forces of English fear and respectability oppressed him still, no matter that the law had been reformed. That is the surest testimony to the clammy anxiety of Victim.

David Thompson

Independent, 17.7.05.

'Victim' is re-issued at selected cinemas on 29 July 2005.


Melville Farr
Laura Farr
Detective Inspector Harris
Harold Doe
Jack Barrett
Lord Charles Fullbrook
Paul Mandrake
Eddy Stone
sandy youth
Scott Hankin
William Patterson
Miss Benham
barber's assistant

Frank Pettit
Dirk Bogarde
Sylvia Syms
John Barrie
John Cairney
Peter McEnery
Anthony Nicholls
Dennis Price
Peter Copley
Donald Churchill
Derren Nesbitt
Alan MacNaughton
Nigel Stock
Charles Lloyd Pack
Mavis Villiers
Noel Howlett
Hilton Edwards
David Evans
Margaret Diamond
Alan Howard
Dawn Beret
Frank Thornton