Sunday, June 20, 2010

VICTIM (1961)

Young Peter McEnery (at right) has been embezzling money from his employer in order to pay off a blackmailer who has photos of him in a compromising position with another man. He contacts a number of people for help, but is caught by the police and hangs himself in his jail cell. The other man in the photos is married lawyer Dirk Bogarde, one of the men who turned away McEnery's calls; he discovers there’s a blackmailing ring preying on gay men (in a country, England, and at a time, the early 60s, when homosexual acts were illegal) and is determined to bring those responsible to justice. None of the other men being threatened are willing to go to the police so despite the potential harm to his reputation and career, Bogarde's on his own.

This is reportedly the first movie to use the word "homosexual" in its dialogue, and it's certainly the first to make a sympathetic argument along the lines of "live and let live" for the treatment of gay people. For its time, it was really rather daring, not so much in terms of sexual content (no nudity, no sex talk, and the compromising photos, which we never see, are simply of Bogarde and McEnery talking together, with McEnery in tears) but in characterization. None of the men are played with stereotypical mannerisms (though one is a hairdresser), and Bogarde (at left) gets to play a three-dimensional character. We learn that Bogarde has had yearnings for other men all his life, including a past romance that led to the other man's suicide. His wife (Sylvia Syms) knows about all this and has stuck with him as he has fought his inclinations, though there is a hint that their relationship is no longer physical. The emotional climax of the film is when Bogarde forcefully tells Syms that, even though nothing happened between he and McEnery, he "wanted" the man.

I don’t mean to make this movie sound like it's all just pleading propaganda for the most basic of gay rights. Most of it plays out like a typical urban crime film of the era, with cops and thugs and violence and dark streets. There's even a red herring plotline concerning a blind man and his friend who we assume for a while are the blackmailers. The real crook is described by his assistant as "a cross between an avenging angel and a peeping Tom," though that interesting description is never expanded upon. Bogarde, who was gay but closeted for most of his career, is excellent as a man who has tamped down his feelings for years but who still seems full of passion under the surface. McEnery (who later was Hayley Mills' co-star in Disney’s THE MOON-SPINNERS) is very good in his short amount of screen time, as are Dennis Price and Charles Lloyd-Pack as blackmail victims. Syms doesn't have a lot to do, but holds her own with Bogarde in their climactic confrontation. [TCM]

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