A landmark film in both British cinema and British society has been acknowledged with the publication of a major new study by Chichester-based writer John Coldstream.
Victim, released 50 years ago this year, was the first film to feature the word “homosexuality” - a film in which Dirk Bogarde risked his career in a plea for greater tolerance. Six years later, homosexuality was partially decriminalised.
John’s book, published by Palgrave Macmillan in the BFI Film Classics series, explores the significance of a work in which Bogarde gave one of his most powerful performances.
The study is released to coincide with the Chichester International Film Festival, which is showing a mini-season of Bogarde films, including Victim.
“It is an important film. It helped in a small way to change the climate of opinion about homosexuality in Britain,” says John, a former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph and the author of Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography.
“Victim is dressed up as a thriller, but it is an unashamedly political film. It was extremely daring. There was the first use of the word ‘homosexual’. It had only ever been hinted at before. That’s the basic, blatant courage, but much more significant was the courage of all those who participated, particularly how brave Dirk was to take the role given that he was the idol of the Odeons at the time.”
In the piece, Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a successful barrister, already being talked of as a future judge. But Farr is approached, in desperation, by “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery), a younger working class man with whom Farr shared an emotional, but asexual relationship. Barrett has fallen prey to blackmailers who know of their relationship.
“It could have been box office poison for Dirk,” John says. “It is remarkably inexplicit in what it shows, but it is amazingly explicit in what it talks about.
“Generally it was treated with a lot of respect when it came out. Some critics dismissed it because they felt that it either trivialised or shied away, while others said, no, it was a seriously thought-through film with something to say that needs to be taken on by those in positions of power.
“Lord Arran, who was the champion of the bill (partially decriminalising homosexuality in 1967), saw the film much later. He wrote a note to Bogarde to say ‘thank you very much for what you did with this film; it is comforting to think that perhaps a million men are no longer living in fear.’ It was an extraordinary thing to write to the star of a little black-and-white unpretentious movie.”
As John says, Dirk himself never “felt able to come out - to use the ghastly expression”, but this film was perhaps the closest he felt able to come to it.
“It was extraordinarily important to him. It changed the course of his career. After that, he started making really serious movies rather than box office fodder. He made The Servant two years later.
“He didn’t become a different actor, but he started to take on very very different parts. He had been shackled to a contract with the Rank Organisation. In 1961, he was just coming to the end of the second term. He was very restless. He wanted to tackle meat. He was a highly-intelligent man. He felt he was being given rubbish to play. But here he was playing in a film of great importance and which was of great importance to him.”
Victim is published in the BFI Film Classics series, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 9781844574278, £9.99.
Film festival events for Dirk Bogarde’s 90th commemoration (1921-1999):
Bogarde Remembered: An illustrated talk by Brock Van den Bogaerde and John Coldstream, Sat, Aug 27, 14.30. A unique perspective on this remarkable working life is provided by Brock Van den Bogaerde, who owns and runs the official website dedicated to his uncle’s memory (www.dirkbogarde.co.uk). In an illustrated talk he will be joined by John Coldstream, Bogarde’s authorised biographer. In the Studio. Tickets £5.
Bogarde screenings at the Festival are: Death In Venice (12A), Sat, Aug 27, 11.00 (£6); Victim (15), Sat, Aug 27 16.00 (In the Studio - £5); The Servant (15), Sun, Aug 28, 16.30 (In the Studio - £5); and King And Country (PG) , Mon, Aug 29 16.15 (In the Studio - £5)