Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims in Victim

When the British drama Victim was released in 1961, homosexual acts between consenting adults were still illegal in England, and though police had grown tired of prosecuting these victimless crimes, the British tabloids pounced on any sort of sex scandal, creating a rich market for blackmailers. Four years earlier, an influential government report had rejected the notion of homosexuality as a mental illness and recommended that it be legalized. Into this climate the Rank Organisation, a giant in British entertainment, cast Dirk Bogarde, the UK’s most popular matinee idol, as Melville Farr, a married, middle-aged barrister who’s being blackmailed for his romantic attachment to a young construction worker. “It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age, to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make,” Bogarde remembered in 1978. “It was, in its time, all three.”

Victim is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, and it screens this coming Monday as part of Facets Cinematheque’s free “teach-in” series, with Northwestern University professor Nick Davis lecturing on the theme “Why Are LGBTQ+ Rights Necessary?” That should be a worthwhile topic, though Victim stops well short of laying down a marker in gay cinema. Screenwriters Janet Green and John McCormick take care to point out that Farr’s illicit attraction to the construction worker, Boy Barrett (Peter McEnery), was never consummated, nor was an earlier one between Farr and a college classmate. In line to become a queen’s counselor and maybe even a judge, Farr is portrayed as a happily married man nobly fighting off his worst impulses, and at the end, he and his prim wife (Sylvia Sims) live hetero ever after. Victim may be more illuminating now for the smaller characters on the periphery, whose remarks constitute an inventory of British attitudes in a rapidly changing era.

Green and McCormick deserve credit for attacking such a taboo subject, yet the commercial imperative of insulating their hero from any implication of gay sex forces them into a fair amount of narrative convolution. As the movie opens, Barrett is being chased by police detectives for having embezzled 2,300 pounds from his construction firm, money he needs to pay off blackmailers who’ve captured a suggestive photograph of him with the barrister. This makes little sense—any blackmailer would go straight to Farr, a wealthy and well-known man with everything to lose—and it rests on the unlikely characterization of Barrett as an innocent with a schoolboy crush. We’re asked to believe that Barrett, apprehended by the police, is so romantically devoted to Farr that he would hang himself in his cell rather than sully the attorney’s reputation, and that Farr, chastened by Barrett’s sacrifice, would resolve to track down the blackmailers at the risk of his own marriage and career.

Victim is said to be the first English-language film to use the word homosexuality, but that’s far from an endorsement. Farr keeps an enormous portrait of his wife, Laura, on his desk at work—it’s so large, you wonder if he’s overcompensating—and the couple seem truly to love and care for one another. Laura knows all about the scandal in Farr’s past: when he was studying at Cambridge, another student formed a romantic attachment to him and also committed suicide. (There’s just something about this guy that makes young men want to kill themselves.) Farr married Laura soon afterward in an effort to straighten himself out, so Laura is terribly alarmed when Barrett phones their house, looking for her husband. After reading in the newspaper that the young man is dead, she decides to confront Farr about the relationship.

A number of English actors turned down the role of Farr, including James Mason and Stewart Granger, and certainly Bogarde was sticking his neck out to play the character, given that he himself was living in the closet. “This is a marvelous part, and in a film that I think is tremendously important, because it doesn’t pull any punches,” he told a TV interviewer on the eve of the movie’s release. Bogarde reportedly wrote the pivotal scene in which Farr comes clean with Laura about his secret dalliance with Barrett, which means the actor may have been responsible for the movie’s roundhouse punch. When Laura demands to know why Farr broke off his relationship with Barrett, the even-tempered barrister finally explodes: “I stopped seeing him because I wanted him!”

Focusing so much on Farr’s sexuality may be a mistake, though, because Victim, for all its compromises, offers a rich mosaic of minor characters, none of them particularly complex but each articulating some British attitude toward homosexuality and the law surrounding it. “I hate their bloody guts,” offers one bartender. “Every newspaper you pick up, it’s excuses. Environment, too much love as kids, too little love as kids. They can’t help it, part of nature. Well, to my mind it’s a weak, rotten part of nature. And if they ever make it legal, they may as well license every other perversion.” The same sort of thinking turns out to be a motivating factor in the movie’s blackmail ring. “They disgust me,” spits one of the criminals. “They’re everywhere! Everywhere you turn! The police do nothing, nothing! Someone’s got to make them pay for their filthy blasphemy.”

As one climbs the social ladder in Victim, characters take a more liberal view of the matter. “If the law punished every abnormality, we’d be kept pretty busy,” argues the crusty Detective Harris (John Barrie); when his sergeant disagrees and identifies as a puritan, Harris reminds him that puritans were illegal once as well. Later in the film, Farr receives a mysterious summons from Lord Fullbrook (Anthony Nicholls), a social friend from his posh club, and learns not only that Fullbrook is a closeted man being targeted by the blackmailers, but that he’s engaged in a three-way relationship with his personal secretary and a famous stage actor. “You’re a sophisticated man, you know the invert is part of nature,” says Fullbrook. “Sherry?” The three lovers pressure Farr to drop his crusade against the blackmailers and join them in a payoff scheme that will free all four of them from future harassment. Somehow Farr winds up defending the nation’s sodomy laws, though the actor, Calloway (Dennis Price), will have none of it. “I’ve never corrupted the normal,” he tells Farr. “Why should I be forced to live outside the law because I find love in the only way I can?”

The class divide that begins to emerge as Farr investigates the blackmailers is a particularly British aspect of Victim. No matter how unjustly men such as Farr, Fullbrook, and Calloway are treated, their wealth provides them with more insulation than the more modest victims enjoy. On a tip, Farr pays a visit to Mr. Henry (Charles Lloyd Pack), who’s selling his barbershop to pay off the blackmailers. “I’ve been to prison four times,” Henry tells Farr. “I couldn’t go through that again, not at my age. I’m going to Canada! I’ve made up my mind to be sensible, as a prison doctor used to say. Don’t care how lonely, but sensible. I can’t stand any more trouble.” Another tip leads Farr to Phip (Nigel Stock), a car salesman reduced to a sweating, fidgeting mass by the threat of exposure. “You look broke,” Farr observes, offering to take Phip’s place the next time the blackmailers demand a rendezvous. “I wish I had the guts to trust you,” says Phip, to which the barrister replies, “You can trust my bank balance.” Later, Farr learns that Phip, in lieu of paying off, has been supplying the blackmailers with the names of other men.

The British Board of Censors gave Victim an X rating upon its initial release, classifying it for adults only and citing, in particular, Farr’s shouted admission that he wanted Barrett sexually. In the U.S. the film was released unrated, though a quarter century later, when it came out on VHS, it was rated PG-13. Thirty years after that, when gay marriage is the law of the land, Victim may seem archaic. But even its compromises teach us something about the era that produced it. The final shot shows Farr, safe at last, dropping the last print of the damning photograph into the fire of his study and watching it warp and burn; his life—like the movie—is a balancing act.  v