The challenge with old films concerning ‘issues’ is to divorce yourself from the modern lens. Opinions on hot topic issues evolve over time, so you need to be aware while watching these films, that the 2018 view on things was reached, as part of a long and winding process of education and compromise.
I was aware of this fact when for my evening’s entertainment on YouTube, I selected the 1961 British film ‘Victim’ – starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. Bogarde plays Melville Farr – a successful barrister who is about to be promoted to Queen’s Counsel. He is married to Laura (Syms) who works as a teacher for children with special needs. He is approached by ‘Boy’ Barrett – a wages clerk at a building firm, who repeatedly calls him. Farr believes that Barrett want to blackmail him about their earlier affair. Whereas in actual fact Barrett himself is being blackmailed about the relationship – he just wants the fare to flee to France. Barrett has been stealing from him employers to pay the extortionists. He commits suicide while in custody.
Learning the truth about Barrett’s motives, Farr decides to take on the blackmailing ring. The problem being that this is 1961 – the laws criminalising homosexuality were known as ‘the blackmailers’ charter’ – there was no point in reporting the crime of blackmail to the police, if the crime for which you were being blackmailed, was the far more heinous crime of poofery. It’s a perfect Catch-22 situation.
In 1961, the laws for which Oscar Wilde had been jailed were still in force. Four years earlier, the government sponsored Wolfenden Report, which had recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality, was sitting – ignored – in some dusty chamber. Gay men were easy prey for the vile. Their lives would be ruined if their secret was revealed. They would be jailed, persecuted, ridiculed and ruined if they were exposed.
This was a brave film. It was hardly a gay rights manifesto – it was made clear that the life of the invert (as us funny boys used to be called) was a sad, desperate, pathetic, lonely existence. But the grinding cruelty and injustice of the law was made clear.
Dirk Bogarde was a renowned matinee idol. And a confirmed bachelor – who despite his fame had always resisted entering into a lavender marriage (whereby a gay actor would marry a woman to appear ‘normal’ to the fans). Although he never officially came out , this film was quite a bold statement to make in those bleak times.
I loved the film. It was eye-opening to see how monstrous the world was for gay people in the very recent past. It was intense and suffocating to witness how claustrophobic and hopeless gay life was back in 1961.
Hugely controversial on its release – this film has been credited with opening a discussion in Britain which led to partial decriminalisation in 1967.
On this year – the quarter century anniversary of the decriminalisation in Ireland, I decided it was time to watch it. I am very glad I did.