Basil Dearden's 1961 film Victim was brave for its time, without being perhaps the radical piece of film some have claimed it to be. It is arguable that films such as Philadelphia (1993) owe a debt to it, at least in terms of the skilful way difficult subjects are dealt with on screen to wider audiences. Yet, both films betray a less than ideal way of handling their subject matter – both can appear to give a very sanitized or one-dimensional view of the real issues confronting their leading characters; both seem to skirt over the subject central to the films' syntheses, which in both instances is prejudice.
It is surely not a coincidence that the lead characters in both films are lawyers; neither is it coincidental that both take on a homophobic establishment to rectify the imbalance of anti-homosexual legislation. Yet, thirty years later one might have expected Demme's film to have been equally instrumental in achieving change. Dearden's film did provoke the British parliament to repeal anti-gay laws; it is questionable that Demme's film ever helped to achieve such radical change in the United States, which says a great deal about the wider influence of film makers over the decades when it comes to social commentary. Surely a much closer analogy for Republicanism in the contemporary America of Demme's film is William Friedkin's Cruising (1980), a virulent and brutal piece of film-making that chimes more happily with American values on homosexuality.
Where the films depart markedly is in their casting. It is questionable that Tom Hanks was ever taking a career risk with Philadelphia. For Dirk Bogarde Victim was a significant departure; having previously been a matinee idol in simple-looking, speciously comic films, of which the Doctor series are the most well known, Victim was new and dangerous territory. Yet, whereas Hanks is for never a single moment believable, Bogarde is. Blackmailed – or so he initially thinks he is – he is humanly vulnerable. Bogarde is at times tortured by his homosexuality – often unable to comprehend it – but what really makes his portrayal of the barrister Melville Farr so persuasive is Bogarde's own smouldering on-screen sexuality. Whilst not widely known at the time it is now possible to look at Bogarde's portrayal and make a picture of the jigsaw of the actor's own homosexuality. And yet, the irony is that whilst Farr is exposing hypocrisy and misunderstanding Bogarde himself was doing precisely the opposite in his private life.
Dearden's film will today seem clichéd, of course. The 'bit of rough' on the side, the dockyard brawls, the blackmail (masterminded, as we learn, by a woman with primitive, almost modern-day Catholic views on sexuality) and the 'gay' figures of hairdressers and booksellers pander to a subjective identity of gay stereotypes. Likewise, the thugs who smash up shops and spray graffiti on Farr's garage door are as much a part of the gangsterism of the 1920s and 1930s as they are of 1960s social dramas. What is largely absent is subtlety. But Dearden does also bring a genuine empathy to the film; the scenes between Bogarde and the excellent Sylvia Syms (also making something of a departure from her usual screen roles) are handled with compassion and understanding. If its values remain overwhelmingly middle-class it is because this is very much a middle-class film, though that by no means makes it an invalid attempt to tackle a difficult subject.
Whilst an important film of its time it is worth remembering that other directors working in Britain also took risks, and greater ones at that. Michael Powell's outstanding 1960 film Peeping Tom never once skirted the issues of its subject matter, or compromised on visual impact, in a way that Dearden had skilfully been able to do a year later (and also a year earlier in his race-riots film Sapphire). Peeping Tom destroyed Powell's career, whilst Dearden's flourished. Bogarde himself graduated to more challenging films, something which arguably might not have been possible without Dearden's Victim.
The DVD transfer of this film is smooth and digitally enhanced but nothing particularly special. As an extra there is a filmed interview with Bogarde but the revelations are few and far between. But it is an important film and warrants a DVD release, though, surprisingly, only a US one.