Things I Read Off the Screen in “Victim”

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The first time I wrote a piece about “things I read off the screen” it was about SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It was a film which recreated vividly a lost world of Walpamur Liquid and other strange, esoteric substances, Basil Dearden’s VICTIM, a heroic movie to have made, one which helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales (Scotland had to wait until, if you can believe it, 1980. Not a typo. 1980.) is set in a similar world. Both films give little typographical glimpses of what was playing in West End theatres at the time. They show a grey, dithering England, drizzled on and antsy.

The Dearden film is script by Janet Green and her husband John McCormack, a team who also wrote John Ford’s SEVEN WOMEN, his last movie and theirs too.

Of course it stars Dirk Bogarde, and was a fantastically courageous thing for him to have undertaken at the time. But then, he was sick of the pap the Rank Organisation had made him appear in, and wanted to make a decisive break. Some of those movies are not so bad, and some are bad but fun, but he had his sights set on higher things. Perhaps he thought that playing a character with homosexual impulses would be like hiding in plain sight — everyone would assume he must be straight, since otherwise the risk would be too great. But I suspect mainly he welcomed the opportunity to draw attention to a bad law which was destroying people’s lives — which could potentially destroy his.

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EMERGENCY CALLS. DO NOT INSERT ANY COINS. ASK EXCHANGE FOR FIRE, POLICE OR AMBULANCE.

Every public phone in this film — and there are many — comes with its own officious warning.

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NEW THEATRE. OLIVER! MOTOR BOOKS. THORSON’S PUBLISHERS LTD.

Motor Books??? Lionel Bart’s musical OLIVER!, later a Carol Reed film, is featured so prominently in this film it creeps into the dialogue, with the senior detective lamenting that a policeman’s lot would be happier if he only had to deal with Bill Sykes types. The implication is that there are those who are true criminals and those who are victims of the law. The pairing of coppers — one enlightened, one bigoted, is exactly the same as in the team’s earlier SAPPHIRE, which dealt with race. It’s a slightly obvious way of shoehorning in a debate about the issues, and subtly prompting the viewer towards a more mature view of the subject. Exactly the kind of thing Stanley Kramer gets knocked for.

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OUT. While the expression “out of the closet” certainly existed in Britain at this time — you can hear it used in REPULSION, for instance — it’s not clear that the single word “out” by itself had any homosexual implication. I think the filmmakers have been careful to avoid flagrant double-entendres creeping into their signage, which is why this film is less cluttered with verbiage than many other urban movies of the era. So this is a case of a sign reaching for additional significance in a prophetic manner.

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CAFÉ. Lovely chiaroscuro shot displaying Dearden’s noir style, displayed in a number of his films at this time. The earlier SAPPHIRE achieves gorgeous effects like this but in colour. Overall it seems to me slightly less successful at steering a path between the various misconceptions about its subject matter. Both films are flawed in ways that are not to do with insensitivity so much as incomplete understanding, and also censorship.

Part of the sign being occluded means that it actually says CAFF, which is how English people would pronounce it anyway, accent grave be damned.

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MELVILLE FARR SHOCKS COURT. SHOOTING PARTY. And the rather vague MELVILLE FARR AWARDS PRIZE. From the scrapbook kept by Peter McEnery’s character, devoted to Dirk Bogarde’s. Bogarde/Farr explains this as “hero worship,” as if young men hero-worshipping barristers was a recognized thing. Making Farr a showbiz personality might have rendered this more plausible, and intensifed the blackmail angle, but would be too on-the-nose and too close for comfort.

Instead, Dennis Price, who had already been outed by an arrest for soliciting, plays the film’s token theatrical, part of a group of co-operative blackmailees who are presented by the movie as something of a sinister cabal. We’re encouraged to feel sympathy for Bogarde, but Bogarde is sort-of “innocent.” In areas like this, the film’s footwork is so fancy it can be hard to know if it’s progressive or reactionary. The answer has to be that it’s progressive just by virtue of the fact that it exists.

IIRC, Bogarde wrote in one of his autobiographies that in Price the film contained one actual homosexual. It also has Hilton Edwards (producer and partner to Michaeal MacLiammoir). Of course, Bogarde is excluding himself, as he always did. When the gay BBC presenter Russell Harty quizzed him on his private life, Bogarde responded with a virtual non-denial denial: “I’m still in the shell and you haven’t cracked it yet, honey!” A refusal to confirm, couched in the campest possible terms.

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GENTLE HAIRDRE. The film’s inclusion of stereotypes like gay hairdressers is forgivable, it seems to me. There WERE gay hairdressers. The IMDB says of actor Charles Lloyd Pack that he “invariably played Church of England ministers.” Not QUITE invariably. It is an odd feature of clerical life that the qualities required in an actor to play a camp hairdresser are exactly those also required to play a Church of England minister.

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FLOWER DRUM SONG.

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HENRY’S. A. PALA. GEL & SON. Don’t know what it means.

The first entrance of the actual blackmailer who, like the Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD and the antagonists of KILL BABY KILL and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE, becomes a de facto serial killer without laying a finger on anyone. This is Derren Nesbitt, who was always on TV when I was growing up, and always in the most dismal things. He’s electrifying here. His wallpaper looks like pieces of correspondence with all the words redacted, and he has a punchbag and a framed print of Michelangelo’s David. Phys Ed and Art, the two suspect subjects. This wraparound ponce in his motorcycle jacket, exuding piss-elegant smarm and leering bullyboy malevolence, is in a very strange partnership with a latter-day puritan who believes in punishing “wrongdoers.” Though his partner’s sincerity in this quest is thrown into question by Nesbitt’s every mannerism. The character is listed in the credits as “Sandy Youth.”

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MR & MRS WOOD. THE LOST LETTER. THE MAGIC MIRROR.

An old theatre playbill provides gnomic hints. The letter must refer to the blackmail notes circulating throughout the narrative. Telephone calls are consistently ineffective in this film, plus you get shouted at by signs: NO PHONE CALLS AFTER 10PM; THIS TELEPHONE IS FOR THE USE OF OUR CUSTOMERS; PLEASE BE AS BRIEF AS POSSIBLE. But letters are effective. Letters make thing happen. A gratuitous subplot involves a fraud ring, operating in parallel with the blackmail, also utilising the postal system. “Words ARE important,” as Peter O’Toole teaches us in THE LAST EMPEROR. When Farr’s garage door is defaced (see top), his brother-in-law somehow knows it’s not the work of “hooligans” because it’s “too explicit.”

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There’s more to this film than the writing on the wall. The gay bachelor flat Bogarde must visit (where he indulges in a bit of gay-bashing himself, slugging the rather frail Peter Copley on the jaw) is decorated in prints of lush foliage. In the stunning shot above, bare autumn trees visible through his front window surround him, creeping in, like cracks in a facade (or like the lines the makeup artist has darkened in his face to make him look older, to make it clear this is Dirk Bogarde playing a character).

Sylvia Sims, who today is a marvelous old bag, has spoken of the boredom of the wife roles she was usually saddled with in her glamorous youth. “Poker-up-the-arse parts,” she and Jean Simmons called them. She took this one because she recognized it was an important film. The mediocrity of her rather vapid character is scarcely felt because Dearden shoots the confrontation with Bogarde so dynamically. (“Because I WANTED HIM!” was Bogarde’s own addition to the script, which he felt was mealy-mouthed on this key point. They filmed the line without clearance from the censor and then simply fought it through.)

In the end, Farr sacrifices his career to do the right thing. He is rewarded by being allowed to keep his marriage. The suggestion is that this is a happy ending — certainly, the movie cannot be allowed to suggest that happiness for Farr lies in embracing his other instincts, which are described elsewhere as unfortunate, worthy of pity rather than censure, but in no way salutary. Is Farr gay? We tend to assume he is because of the casting, but the movie doesn’t come out and say so — he was attracted to McEnery’s “Boy” Barrett, and so stopped seeing him. This, he says, is quite different to what happened before his marriage — and incident his wife was aware of when they wed, and which he swore would never be repeated. So, in this cunning way, by repeatedly making it clear that nothing “happened” with McEnery, the filmmakers smuggle in the fact that something DID “happen” previously. And the result of all this finagling is that Farr gets to have had gay sex and doesn’t have to die. He gets off with life.

Background music from the transport cafe scene — pre-Beatles rock n roll, trying every so hard to pass for American. Kind of delightful, though.

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17 Responses to “Things I Read Off the Screen in “Victim””

  1. Dirk Bogarde is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. That he should take this part because he wanted to protest the laws and to imagine that by doing so he WASN’T “Outing Himself” is madness. That “Because I WANTED him!” (the film’s greatest moment) was an improv on his part is the biggest “Tell” of All-Time. Yet he continued to write volume after volume of “Autobiography” with nary about word about “The Love That Dare Not Announce Itself on the BBC Prior To Stephen Fry.” He insisted that he was in love with Capucine.

    Well so are we all, darling. Only makes us GAYER.

    He gives a great performance here, and is a more than “convincing” heterosexual in Losey’s Accident — the film he made after throwing all caution to the wind with Modesty Blaise (the greatest camp performance EVAH!)

    A few years back there was a Channel 4 documentary about his (drumroll please) “Private Life” which included interviews with his sister, the son he and his manager/lover Anthony Forward raised together when Baba-Mama Glynnis Johns walked out, 16mm films he shot of his army boyfriends, and other items of interest.

    His last theatrical film was Tavernier’s Daddy Nostagie in which he played Jane Birkin’s (neglectful) father. Iconographic perfection. But his sawn song was a TV adaptation of Grama Green’s May We Borrow Your Husband ? in which he plays the sympathetic heterosexual narrator, commenting on the blinkered heroine’s inability to realize that not only is her husband gay, but that he’s run off with a gay couple right in the middle of their honeymoon.

    Never seen it and would love to.

  2. Me neither.

    My late friend Lawrie knew Dirk fairly well. They were exactly the same age. He claimed Dirk never drove because he had caused a fatal accident, something which no biography mentions. Lawrie was very rarely wrong about these things so I wonder if diligent research might uncover the truth.

  3. Gill Fraser Lee Says:

    There’s a reference to a miltary vehicle accident in one autobiog volume, which DB credits as the reason for his refusal to drive. Can’t recall which volume it is. I’ve always found Bogarde fascinating, as an actor and a man. It’s Forewood I feel for, never acknowledged as more than a manager, but then maybe that’s the way Forewood liked it. Different times …

  4. An actor friend of Bogarde’s reckoned he could never come out, not because he was ashamed of being gay, but because he couldn’t admit to having pretended for so long. It was the closet that was shameful.

  5. “He gets off with life”… Just like the bit in the Bette Davis THE LETTER, when she tells Herbert Marshall she’ll regret killing her lover every day.

    too bad the Production Code made it so she had to die to be punished, when living would have been so much worse.

  6. Wyler could stand killing her, what he hated was then having the dragon lady arrested, so that EVERYTHING is bundled into a neat moralistic ball. He would always turn the TV off before it got to that bit.

  7. Yes it was the closet that was shameful. But no one would have attacked him had he finally come out. Look at the success Tab Hunter has had being Out and Proud.

  8. It reminds me of what William Burroughs said of Paul Bowles autobiography Without Stopping: “He should have called it Without Telling. “

  9. “Farr is Queer” reminds me of William F. Buckley shrieking “You Queer!!!!” at Gore Vidal on national television back in 1968, thus disclosing what a Big Ol’ Closet Queen he was.

  10. Every verbal attack contains an element of boomerang, doesn’t it?

  11. ” a heroic movie … which helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales (Scotland had to wait until, if you can believe it, 1980. “…and 1982 in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist M.P. H. Montgomery Hyde had campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the 1950s and was deselected by his constituency party in 1959.

    “Motor Books??? ”
    Moved down a street to Cecil Court, but still nearby.

    “too bad the Production Code made it so she had to die to be punished, when living would have been so much worse.”
    In Scarlet Street that’s what happens to Edward G. Robinson’s Christopher Cross. Was it because the original – Renoir’s La Chienne – left the “hero” alive? As far as I know, it’s the only U.S. film made under the Production Code where a murderer doesn’t die.

  12. Lang argued it in person — “Look at him! How can you suggest he isn’t punished!” And apparently pulled it off. In the Renoir, his survival at the end would have been totally unacceptable as the film is a comedy and he’s a happy hobo in the final scene. The two illustrate neatly the difference in what was possible in European versus American movies.

  13. kevin mummery Says:

    Wow!

    Having read this latest installment, and having come into possession of a Criterion Collection set of Basil Dearden’s work, I eagerly await your next critique.

    I got the Criterion set because it included “Sapphire”, which I hadn’t seen since the ’70’s on TV and had always been sort of interested in…that the set includes “Victim”, “League Of Gentlemen” and “All Night Long” clinched the deal.

    Please enlighten us further!

  14. Leaugue of Gents is maybe my face — no preaching, no sympathetic characters. But those are all wildly interesting movies. I wrote about Sapphire for BritMovies.com, a site which seems to be falling into disrepair — I think I’ll rescue the piece and republish it here…

  15. I haven’t read any of Bogarde’s bios but I had heard about the car crash and here it is: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tt4lt (His Desert Island Discs appearance, 19 minutes in).

  16. Wrong link, but thanks — the next question is, did it really happen, or did he imagine it the way he imagied liberating Auschwitz? And did he meet Ronnie Reagan while they were both imagining liberating Auschwitz?

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