Released in 1961, when ‘convicted homosexual’ could still accurately describe a person’s legal status, ‘Victim’ was justifiably seen as a daring step for both its director Basil Dearden and star, Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde plays prominent barrister Melville Farr, who jeopardises his standing by investigating the blackmail of a late young man whose appeals for help he had earlier rejected. His performance marked his shift from romantic lead to serious actor and remains the film’s most fascinating ingredient: characterised by resolute continence punctuated with irruptions of desperate candour (‘I stopped seeing him because I wanted him. Do you understand? I wanted him!’), it speaks of a determined self-policing that has cordoned off passion, tracing a progression towards public openness that Bogarde himself never felt able to follow.
Unpacking a shadow society that cuts across age and class, Farr’s investigations unearth plenty of pleas for sympathy but no declarations of pride: if the homophobic are coded as hypocrites, the gay characters tend towards the passive and precious; only Farr, the diligent aspirant to heterosexual norms, shows real guts. The script’s good intentions can tend towards the preachy (it has been credited with contributing to the eventual change in the law), and it isn’t immune to the melodramatic or schematic. But there are many pleasures to be found in the quirky supporting cast, expressive, noir-style lighting and an effectively suspenseful opening all too aptly based around the construction of a façade and the withholding of information.