Is “Victim” the original gay thriller?


Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend delves into adjacent queer and queer headlines from the past that deserve a watch or re-watch.

The pioneer: the victim

Few contemporary viewers have even heard of this 1961 British thriller, the first film to invoke the use of the term ‘homosexual’. The great Dirk Bogarde (who was gay in real life) stars as Melville Farr, a successful lawyer living in London with his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms)… and a locked up gay man. When Boy, her ex-boyfriend (Peter McEnery), approaches her for money, Melville expresses the requisite skepticism. Then he learns of a much larger blackmail plot in a photo of him and Boy in an intimate embrace. Unable to turn to the police, homosexuality being a crime at the time, Melville swears to destroy his blackmailers by helping their other victims. On his journey to the underworld, Melville must dodge his blackmailers and the police or risk total ruin.

The victim in 1961 did what it would take for American movies, television, and even years on stage to do: portray a likeable gay protagonist. Director Basil Dearden shoots the film in the style of film noir, using the long, rich shadows of black and white photography to create an atmosphere of danger and suspense. It also helps that Dearden has Bogarde – one of the underrated great actors – in mind, giving one of his best performances. As a homosexual himself, Bogarde understood the pain and repression of his character, not to mention the pressure to hide his sexuality from the public. More importantly, he doesn’t fall into the trap of making Melville a pathetic character. Rather, he plays the role of a basically good man, not ashamed of who he is or whom he loves, but afraid of life in a hostile world.

The victim might not have the sexiness or sex load of today’s gay movies, but that doesn’t make it any less important or less powerful. It’s a staple film in the Queer Cinematic Canon, which features a stellar performance by Bogarde, and one that is always worth seeing.

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