Feb 23, 2012

Book Review-- BFI Film Classics: Victim

by John Coldstream 

Victim (1961) is an unusual movie, because it succeeds on such vastly different levels. It is simultaneously a thriller, social statement and cultural force of change. Though its makers insisted that it was a movie about blackmail, it drew the most attention for being the first British movie in which the word “homosexual” was spoken. Perhaps Victim wasn’t meant to be about homosexuals, but it speaks expertly of their plight in 1960s Britain. 

In this brief, brilliant book, all of these factors are given thoughtful consideration. It attempts to separate what was intended from what was communicated by the film and doesn’t fuss too much about the areas where that distinction is difficult to make. It makes its points with text, charts, script pages and numerous stills from the film. 

I'm a big fan of the carefully-executed film monographs put out by the British Film Institute (BFI). Though there is a certain structure to the series, each book always has its own character, which depends upon the nature of the film being discussed. For those of you not familiar with the series, each edition describes the backstory, plot, production and reaction to a single movie. The books are never much more than a hundred pages long, but they are thorough, with strong research, fascinating insights and enough of the author’s personal imprint to keep them from getting too generic. 

They couldn’t have picked a better author for this edition. John Coldstream has had a hand in two books about Bogarde, the first his authorized biography of the actor and the second a collection of Bogarde’s letters which he edited. He also helped Bogarde to collect his own journalism in another book. The author's familiarity with the star of Victim gives the text an anchor from which the rest of the film can be explored. 

Without Bogarde’s participation, the movie would likely not have thrived as it has, and Coldstream is right to shine a spotlight on the courageous actor (who was a closeted homosexual himself) and his controlled, but tormented performance. Coldstream marks the progress of Victim with a chart that Bogarde sketched (and which is included inside the cover of the book) to show the various emotional peaks and valleys of his character. 

In part, the plot of Victim revolves around a group of homosexuals who are tormented by blackmailers taking advantage of the fact that their victim’s intimate activities are illegal in the current British society. It is also the story of Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a successful barrister who puts his marriage, career and reputation in jeopardy to help the victims while dealing with his own barely repressed homosexuality. 

All of these plotlines converge on one point: by making homosexuality illegal, a society opens itself up to a torrent of additional crimes, from blackmail to theft. These elegantly stated points had their effect, as they helped to pave the way for a 1967 act which decriminalized private homosexual acts between consenting adults in the UK. 

Though the subject matter of Victim was groundbreaking, you get the sense that at least British society was ready for discussing, if not necessarily accepting the practice of homosexuality. The film received an ‘X’ rating in the UK and it was banned in the United States, but its release inspired thoughtful reviews and widespread appreciation for the courage of those in the production for tackling a difficult subject. 

Overall, this tidy little volume manages to capture the essence of a complex film and production, which did good business and promoted change, while simultaneously succeeding as an entertaining work of suspense. 

Thank you to Palgrave Macmillan for the opportunity to review this book.

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