Last week’s Reel Ale Film Club celebrated pastel colours, youthful crooning and Cliff Richard in high-waisted trousers. This week sees a return to black and white and a turn to more controversial subject matter in Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde.
As part of a cycle of ‘social problem’ films made for British audiences (including films about race, rape and drugs – see Richard Dyer’s The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation), Victim was the first mainstream British film to deal explicitly with homosexuality. It was also apparently the first English language film to ever utter the word, which is not even used explicitly in the film’s trailer.
For the contemporary press, the film’s most shocking milestone was the casting of a major star as the film’s gay character. Dirk Bogarde had risen to stardom during the 1950s working mainly for the Rank Organisation and became one of the most popular British stars of the period and something of a heart-throb. In 1960 Bogarde left Rank in search of more challenging roles and, some have observed, a desire to destroy his matinée idol image. He could not have found a more appropriate role than as blackmailed barrister Melville Farr in Victim. The Guardian’s Matthew Sweet writes
[W]hen the credits rolled, so the story goes, all the girls who had swooned over him in the Doctor pictures and fantasised about being taken out by him for a drink at a Home Counties golf club, quietly took down their Dr Sparrow posters and redirected their desires towards Cliff Richard.
Lucky Cliff. Though this wasn’t really the case – Bogarde managed to maintain his career and popularity after Victim – it is true that his choice to star in the film was not well received by the media and Bogarde was frequently questioned in interviews. The Independent notes that
In a television interview to promote the film, he was asked the not-so-veiled question: “You must feel very strongly about this subject to risk losing possibly a large part of your audience by appearing in such a bitterly controversial film?”
The extent of the threat to Bogarde’s image is evident from the article below (unfortunately from an unknown magazine) which goes to great lengths to explain his unusual role choice as a creative and committed actor seeking to avoid typecasting. The article insists that “Dirk Bogarde is a normal, healthy male with the usual number of male hormones properly dispersed to insure masculinity” and “In real life Dirk likes girls.” With such reassurances in place, the article praises Victim for posing radical questions like “Is homosexuality a crime or a sickness?” Great… In 1961 homosexuality was explicitly the latter, a crime, punishable by imprisonment. Consequently, Bogarde’s performance was all the more outrageous for the sensitivity and depth he afforded the role. Penned by script writer Janet Green – a previous collaborator of Dearden’s and an avid supporter of homosexual law reform – the story of a gay barrister ‘on the wrong side of the law’ actually raises far more significant questions about the relationship of the law to private sexual practices and to matters of sexuality more broadly. In this sense, the film was extremely brave.
Though some critics have argued that the film is now “hopelessly outdated” in its attitude to homosexuality (Philip Kemp, Sight and Sound, 2005), it was an incredibly significant landmark of queer representation in British cinema and is one of my favourite films. Don’t miss it at Reel Ale Film Club at the Railway Tavern Ale House on 6th June at 8pm.
The ‘Queer London’ theme continues at Reel Ale Film Club on 1st August with Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987) and 29th August with Young Soul Rebels (Issac Julien, 1991). See the full programme below.
London on Film – 25th April – 19th September:
25/4 – Silent London – Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929)
2/5 – Wartime London: Part 1 – Waterloo Bridge (Mervyn LeRoy, 1940)
9/5 – Wartime London: Part 2 – I Was a Fireman (Humphrey Jennings, 1943) + London Can Take It (Humphrey Jennings, 1940)
16/5 – Larceny in London: Part 1 – The Ladykillers (Alexander McKendrick, 1955)
23/5 – British New Wave – We Are The Lambeth Boys (Karel Reisz, 1959) + Momma Don’t Allow (Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, 1956)
30/5 – ‘Its’s Wonderful to be Young’ – The Young Ones (Sidney J. Furie, 1961)
6/6 – Queer London: Part 1 – Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961)
13/6 – British Bands: Part 1 – A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1965)
20/6 – Art House – Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
27/6 – Terror on the Tube – Quartermass and The Pit (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
4/7 – Hitchcock’s London – Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock, 1972)
11/7 – DINOSAURS in London – One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (Robert Stevenson, 1975)
18/7 – Gangster’s Paradise: Part 1 – The Long Good Friday (John Mackenzie, 1980)
25/7 – Horror – An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
1/8 – Queer London: Part 2 – Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
8/8 – Larceny in London: Part 2 – A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton & John Cleese, 1988)
15/8 – Romantic Comedy – The Tall Guy (Mel Smith & Richard Curtis, 1989)
22/8 – Gangster’s Paradise: Part 2 – The Krays (Peter Medak, 1990)
29/8 – London Soul – Young Soul Rebels (Issac Julien, 1991)
5/9 – British Bands: Part 2 – SpiceWorld (Bob Spiers, 1997)
12/9 – Big Guns in the Big Smoke – Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
19/9– Docu-dreams – Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, 2012)