Photo by LMPC

Victim at sixty

How much has really changed in the film industry since the Dirk Bogarde film “came out”?

Artillery Row

One of this summer’s less likely hits was the Disney family adventure film Jungle Cruise. Set in the Edwardian era, based on a theme park ride and starring the once-in-a-lifetime trio of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Emily “The Oscar-Nominated Actress” Blunt and Jack “The Posh Comedian” Whitehall, it has proved a substantial box office success, perhaps due to its light-hearted tone. Yet it has attracted its own share of controversy and criticism. This is in large part because of the Whitehall character, a foppish linen-suited Englishman who at one point confides to Johnson’s ultra-manly skipper that he has broken off several engagements because “my interests lie elsewhere”.

As euphemisms go, this is arguably even less direct than Laurence Olivier’s bisexual Roman grandee informing Tony Curtis’s unfortunate slave in Spartacus that “my tastes include both snails and oysters”. Yet Disney and the filmmakers billed the moment as a full coming-out scene between the two characters, thereby attracting criticism for casting the heterosexual Whitehall in an apparently gay role. The irony is that they have now attracted two different kinds of opprobrium for no particular benefit. After all, when an effete and well-spoken British character appears in a supporting role in a blockbuster, few think of them as flying the flag for heterosexuality, unless, of course, they’re Four Weddings-era Hugh Grant.

Victim was an opportunity for its star Dirk Bogarde himself a closeted gay man to stretch himself

This mealy-mouthed treatment of homosexuality in mainstream popular cinema is nothing new. Many recent Disney pictures, including Beauty and the Beast and Avengers: Endgame, have paid tokenistic lip service to gay characters and themes, but in such a way that the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments can easily be deleted if an unenlightened country such as China might find such allusions objectionable. As for featuring an openly homosexual protagonist, well, there are arthouse films for that, or the biographical likes of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman. It is probably notable that Bohemian Rhapsody was a PG-13 film about Queen without explicit sex scenes, and an enormous box office success, and Rocketman, which was an R-rated biopic of Elton John with (relatively) frank sexual content, was a noticeably softer performer at the multiplex.

One has to go back to 1961 to find mainstream British cinema’s first real attempt to deal with homosexuality, in the form of Basil Dearden’s film Victim. It was a significant change of approach for Dearden, who had been associated with such cosy middlebrow fare as the comedies The Smallest Show On Earth and Will Hay’s My Learned Friend, but it was also an opportunity for its star Dirk Bogarde himself a closeted gay man to stretch himself beyond the limiting matinee idol roles that he had been cast in over the previous decade. The film revolved around the apparently successful barrister Melville Farr, who is dogged by the scandalous secret that he has had a “close friendship” with a young man from a working-class background who is being blackmailed for his homosexuality. When the young man commits suicide, Farr is compelled to take on the blackmailers, even at the cost of his own reputation.

Seen today, Victim is a strange mixture of the coy and the frank. Filmed six years before the legalisation of homosexuality, it presents a nightmarish world in which illegal acts between men can result in prison sentences and gloatingly salacious publicity that can destroy a reputation, or a life, overnight. Blackmail or exposure (indecent or otherwise) are ever-present threats, and the overall impression that the film gives is of a terrifyingly harsh world, where illicit trouser-droppers are cruelly punished for their predilections. Yet the film also soft-peddles the precise nature of the relationship between Farr and his “friend”, taking great care to suggest that, although Bogarde’s character is undeniably homosexual in his inclinations, he has repressed his urges through a precautionary marriage to the respectable Laura. The viewers are therefore invited to see this as the “proper” relationship, and Farr’s friendship with the young man as nothing more than a regrettable lapse.

The US simply banned the film outright for its apparently depraved themes

The reason for the film’s continued interest, other than its chilling evocation of a pre-permissiveness world, is the presence of Bogarde, in the role that changed his career forever. Although he never announced his homosexuality publicly during his lifetime, such films as Victim, Death in Venice and The Servant made it clear to all but the most indulgent viewer that the former star of Doctor in the House was far from the clean-cut, perma-smiling pin-up that he had been so assiduously marketed as by the Rank organisation. The only rank that he seemed interested in from Victim onwards was that of the outsider.

His performance is wonderfully nuanced and rich, making Farr both a victim and an avenger, given to sudden and propulsive outbursts of anger and feeling under his calm, patrician exterior. Perhaps the most memorable of these is when, repeatedly challenged by his wife to explain the precise nature of his “friendship” with the younger man, Farr shouts, “You won’t be content until you know, will you? Till you ripped it out of me? I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Do you understand? Because I wanted him!”

This, as well as the references to homosexuality and characters being “queer”, was strong stuff for 1961. The BBFC granted the film an “X” or “adults only” rating, with the note that “to the great majority of cinema-goers, homosexuality is outside their direct experience and is something which is shocking, distasteful and disgusting”. This relative permissiveness was not offered in the US, which simply banned the film outright for its apparently depraved themes. It was not released there until the following year, thanks to the relative liberalisation of the censorship system.

Today, Victim might seem to be a quaint period piece. Yet, in an era where there are no openly gay leading male actors, and where there are daily arguments about what, precisely, should constitute LGBTQIA+ status, it is surprisingly timely in many of its provocations and suggestions. Purely as a piece of filmmaking, I’d rather watch this particular walk on the wild(e) side a hundred times than take another, regrettable, Jungle Cruise. Unless, of course, the next film features a romantic subplot between Whitehall and Johnson, which would be quite the trip downriver.

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