Tonight’s offering is one of the classic campaigning films of British cinema, Victim starring Dirk Bogarde. It is a plea for law reform at a time when to be a male gay was to be at risk of imprisonment and social ruination.
Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a successful married lawyer but one with a homosexual past who is trying to suppress his desires for other men. Farr meets and falls in love with another gay man but Farr doesn’t realise that this other man is being blackmailed. The blackmailers photograph Farr and his lover and threaten to reveal Farr’s sexuality to the world. In a culture where to be gay was to be completely outside normal society (except in some places like parts of London’s East End) and this revelation would of course kill Farr’s high flying career.
The stress of being blackmailed sends Farr’s male lover into a deep depression for which he feels that suicide is the only way to escape. When Farr realises that his lover killed himself over a blackmailer he decides to hunt down the blackmailer even though his search will expose his own sexuality to public view.
This really was a film that was ahead of the time in which it was made, 1961, and came quite a few years before the legislation inspired by the Woolfenden Report made male homosexuality legal.
Everything about this film says ‘class’ from the quality of the acting, the camerawork, the lighting, the script and its portrayal of a world where nearly every gay man had to be on guard against blackmailers. Those who blackmailed gay men because they were able to because of the laws at the time, did immense damage, they ruined careers, destroyed families and in some cases when they blackmailed those in sensitive jobs, they damaged national security. It is my firm belief that it wasn’t just changing social mores and a very liberal home secretary that influenced law reform but the fear that there were gay people, vulnerable to blackmail, working in the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service. Making those people legal and therefore unable to be blackmailed, probably stopped many potential leaks of sensitive information at a time of Cold War tension.