On this Friday 50 years ago, at 1.30 p.m., the house lights at the Odeon Leicester Square dimmed for the first public screening of a British movie called Victim. It carried an ‘X’ certificate, which to the fans of its star, Dirk Bogarde, seemed decidedly odd. His reputation as the idol, not just of the Rank Organisation’s flagship cinema but of all the country’s Odeons, had been based largely on performances as Dr Simon Sparrow and Sydney Carton, and in other undemanding fare.
The film’s release turned out to be a defining moment in the career of a great screen actor and a landmark in British cinema. For some, though, this efficient little black-and-white thriller helped to change the world.
The plot involves the hunt for blackmailers who are targeting homosexuals. A young wages clerk, Jack Barrett, played by Peter McEnery, has been photographed, in tears, in a car driven by a successful barrister, Melville Farr (Bogarde). The nature of their relationship is less important than the fact that the lawyer is evidently compromised. As the pressure mounts on both men, confrontations take place between Farr and his wife Laura (Sylvia Syms) which to this day have lost none of their shock value and poignancy.
Beneath the basic story lies unashamed propaganda. When the film was shot, the ‘Government report into Homosexual Offences and Prostitution’, delivered to parliament by Sir John Wolfenden and his committee in late 1957, was stranded on the legislative rocks. Its principal recommendation — that homosexual acts in private between consenting adults should be decriminalised — had been, spasmodically, the subject of intense discussion; but for Westminster it was a reform too far.
Into the debate stepped the writer Janet Green, the producer Michael Relph and the director Basil Dearden.