The 1961 British film Victim featured a plot steeped in homosexual blackmail. Directed by Basil Dearden, starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. It was the first English language film to use the word “homosexual”.the plot revolves around A successful, but very closeted barrister, Melville Farr, (Dirk Bogarde) seeking to break up a blackmail ring after one of his gay client commits suicide, the 1961 film brought to mass audiences a key danger that gay people faced: “A law which sends homosexuals to prison is a charter for blackmail.” The film had been released in Britain in August of 1961, but because was barred from U.S. theaters because the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA) standards prohibited films with homosexual content.
British reviews praised Bogarde’s performance as his best and praised his courage in taking on the role. A London women’s magazine called it “the most startlingly outspoken film Britain has ever produced”.
Bosley Crowther wrote that the film “appears more substantial and impressive than its dramatic content justifies” because “it deals with a subject that heretofore has been studiously shied away from or but cautiously hinted at on the commercial screen”. It thought the script “routine” and “shoddily constructed” as drama but successful as a political argument:
[A]s a frank and deliberate exposition of the well-known presence and plight of the tacit homosexual in modern society it is certainly unprecedented and intellectually bold. It makes no bones about the existence of the problem and about using the familiar colloquial terms. The very fact that homosexuality as a condition is presented honestly and unsensationally, with due regard for the dilemma and the pathos, makes this an extraordinary film.
Victim was the only British entry in the Venice Film Festival in 1961, where an Italian critic commented: “at last the British have stopped being hypocrites”
in the United States the MPPDA changed its code five weeks later and Victim saw its U.S. premiere on February 5, 1962. In a film review two weeks later, Time magazine trashed the movie:
Victim has a neat plot, deft direction by Basil Dearden, and the sort of grum good manners one expects of the British in these trying situations. It also has a careful performance by Bogarde, and it pursues with eloquence and conviction the case against an antiquated statute.
But what seems at first an attack on extortion seems at last a coyly sensational exploitation of homosexuality as a theme —and, what’s more offensive, an implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice.
Almost all the deviates in the film are fine fellows—well dressed, well spoken, sensitive, kind. The only one who acts like an overt invert turns out to be a detective.
Everybody in the picture who disapproves of homosexuals proves to be an ass, a dolt or a sadist. Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself. “I can’t help the way I am,” says one of the sodomites in this movie. “Nature played me a dirty trick.” And the scriptwriters, whose psychiatric information is clearly coeval with the statute they dispute, accept this sick-silly self-delusion as a medical fact.
Victim became a highly sociologically significant film; many believe it played an influential role in liberalizing attitudes and the laws in Britain regarding homosexuality as is considered a classic of gay cinema.
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