Trapped in the Closet

Melissa Anderson on Basil Dearden’s Victim

Basil Dearden, Victim, 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.

IT REALLY WAS the love that dared not speak its name: The words homosexual and homosexuality weren’t uttered on-screen until 1961, in Basil Dearden’s London-set Victim, the first commercial movie to plead tolerance for same-sexing between consenting adults since the 1919 German film Different from the Others.

Co-written by Janet Green (who scripted Dearden’s 1959 film Sapphire, a police procedural about a murdered woman who had been passing as white) and John McCormick, Victim unspools as a thriller about Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a married, closeted, extraordinarily virtuous barrister who stands up to a blackmailer. Until 1967, homosexuality was illegal in England—a prohibition that essentially became, in the words of the film’s detective inspector, a “blackmailer’s charter”; 90 percent of all blackmail cases at the time involved threats to expose homosexuality.

Though succumbing occasionally to the creaky, heavy-handed dialogue typical of social-awareness films, Victim remains a thoughtful, sober work (particularly when contrasted with the hysteria of another high-profile, lavender-themed movie made the same year on the other side of the Atlantic: William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour). The corrosive effects of the closet and self-loathing are unsparingly examined across class lines and age groups. When Farr sets out to avenge the death of a young construction worker (driven to suicide by a blackmailer’s demands) with whom he was emotionally involved, he knows full well that his refusal to remain invisible will end his promising legal career and, most likely, his marriage to Laura (Sylvia Syms). The scenes between Farr and his wife are Victim’s most poignantly intricate: Though their marriage is clearly a companionate, loving, and trusting one, with Laura fully aware of her husband’s gay past, Farr’s revelations about his most recent same-sex attachment, even if platonic, devastate her. The film’s empathy extends to both characters—casualties of enforced silence and concomitant deception.

Victim, part of the four-DVD box set “Basil Dearden’s London Underground,” is available from Criterion’s Eclipse series beginning January 25. For more details, click here.