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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Victim (1961)

"Fear is the oxygen of blackmail."
- Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: February 02, 2003

Stars: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Sims, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery
Director: Basil Dearden

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:39m:59s
Release Date: January 21, 2003
UPC: 037429167021
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B-B C

DVD Review

It may be a measure of how shoddily we continue to treat gay people in this country that this film from more than forty years ago retains almost all of its sting—an extended clip from Victim, in fact, appears in The Celluloid Closet, a fine documentary on the history of gays in Hollywood, illustrating the point that the British have been much better about this than Americans. But unlike, say, an Oliver Stone jeremiad, Victim works first and foremost as a well-told story. The old screenwriter's saw is: if you want to send a message, call Western Union. But Victim is that rare instance, a film with a political point to make that doesn't broadcast its agenda and make it a clumsy encumbrance to dramatic action.

The true villain of the piece isn't in the cast: it's the prehistoric laws, still on the books in Britain in the early 1960s, criminalizing homosexuality. As a policeman remarks in the film: "Someone once called this law against homosexuals the blackmailers' charter," and that's just what happens here. Dirk Bogarde plays Melville Farr, prominent London barrister, properly married, who has struck up an unwise and a suspicious friendship with Jack Barrett, a construction worker on a site not far from Farr's office. When the film begins, Barrett is calling Farr frantically—Farr will not take the calls, and Barrett is on the run. He is arrested in a men's room, trying to destroy a strange little scrapbook, filled with newspaper clippings about Farr—before he can provide the authorities with satisfactory answers, Barrett hangs himself in his jail cell.

Barrett is a necessarily closeted homosexual, and has been embezzling from his employer to pay off the anonymous blackmailers who have possibly damaging photographs of him and Farr. (They're pretty clearly not in flagrante delicto< in these photos, but seem to show Barrett and Farr having a conversation in an automobile, with the former in tears—we never do get to see the picture on screen.) Farr is stung by the news of the suicide, and by what he learns about these blackmailing rings—he wants to root out this injustice, to right the wrongs done to his friend, but he properly fears being tainted by the same brush. Even if he isn't imprisoned, being thought queer is undoubtedly more than enough to torpedo his rapidly ascending legal career.

For one of the first times on screen, gay characters are allowed to speak with dignity: "I can't help the way I am, but the law says I'm a criminal." As they do in life, in this film they're from every walk of life: not just hairdressers and drag queens (cf. Mrs. Doubtfire), but car salesmen, bookshop clerks, lawyers and construction workers. And of course they encounter every sort of reaction, from downright revulsion ("Why can't he stick with his own sort?") to pity to sympathy. And on occasion the screenplay can get overly didactic, sounding more like an op-ed piece than dialogue: "Consenting males in private shouldn't be pilloried by an antiquated law." Surprisingly enough, many of the best scenes in the movie are between Farr and his wife—Farr's sexual preferences have clearly been the unspoken but open secret in their childless marriage, and you can sense the years of recriminations and love between Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. It must have been, in its time, a brave role for Bogarde to play—Tom Hanks took some flak decades later for Philadelphia, and the politics of this movie are considerably more evolved than they are in Hollywood material of the same period on the same subject (e.g., The Children's Hour).

Director Basil Dearden has wisely used the noir storytelling conventions, and this frequently feels more like a smart spy picture than anything else. It's not really a great movie, and were it not for its subject matter, would probably be regarded as a middling if stylish early '60s noir—but it's told with passion, intelligence, and a fierce point of view, and that's not something that you can say about enough movies, from any time, about anything.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The film has a funny mélange of styles—the exteriors are shot in an almost documentary, vérité manner, while the interiors are highly stylized, full of shadows and contrasts typical of noir. Some of the moving camera shots are stunning, but it seems as if the DVD transfer was made from a damaged print—many scratches and bits of debris are evident, though the black levels are solid.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The dynamics on the stereo track are fine, as is the balance; there is a little bit of popping, though, but not enough to interfere with the audibility of the dialogue.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. insert booklet with an essay by David Thomson
Extras Review: Dirk Bogarde in Conversation (28m:32s) is a 1961 interview with the film's leading man, shot in his home, discussing his career up to that time—it includes extended clips not just from Victim, but from Hunted and Doctor in the House. Much of it is shot at a bizarre, high angle, with only the occasional cutaway to the interviewer's face; it's more a career review than a consideration of the movie that Bogarde is promoting, and Bogarde seems at his most human when his huge mastiff shows up for the last seconds of the interview.

The original trailer curiously fails to tell its audience what the film's title is; and the accompanying essay by David Thomson is a fine meditation on Bogarde, though the protagonist's first name is misspelled as "Melvin" instead of Melville.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

A bit of political propaganda in the best sense of the word, Victim is at least as notable for its sexual politics as for its filmmaking craft.


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