Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961)—a groundbreaking film in the U.K., where it helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexuality—feels a bit dull and stuffy today, not least because, set as it is within the restrained, mannered world of the English upper classes, its characters do a lot of brow-furrowing and lip-stiffening and gazing worriedly into the middle distance. As Pauline Kael pointed out, in its attempt to make homosexuality respectable the film drains it of any pleasure it might hold (the idea seems to be that you may practice homosexuality so long as you don’t like it). This idea also plays out in the film’s distinction between the gay men who are capable of managing their affairs, largely due to their class privilege, and the gay boys who literally can’t afford to do so.
At the center of the film is Dirk Bogarde as Melville Farr, a well-respected barrister who sacrifices his reputation in order to expose a blackmail ring responsible for the death of his young lover, Jack Barrett (Peter McEnery), affectionately known as “Boy.” Boys are a source of anxiety within the world of Victim, in which nearly all of the representative gay characters are decidedly grown-up men in their forties, fifties, and sixties. The film seems a good deal more comfortable with the thought of gay men, most of whom are presented as tweedy, bookish queers, stay-at-home types who don’t make much trouble and keep to themselves, than with the thought of gay working-class youths like Boy, who don’t know how to keep out of trouble. As his name suggests, Boy is a failed man in a number of ways; he appears sallow, furtive, drawn; we learn that he rents a single room and eats most of his meals out of tins. It’s impossible to say whether his meager lifestyle is a function of his homosexuality or vice versa. Regardless, he’s presented as both victim and cautionary tale, the grotesque underside to the refined, mature, upper-class gay men who make up Bogarde’s social circle (see below).
The film’s homosexual panic about gay youth is not so much explicated as implied, in part through a subplot about Farr’s wife Laura, who takes a part-time job at a clinic for “difficult” children. According to the film’s philosophy of do-gooderism, children need proper looking after or else they might go the way of the unfortunate young man who, as his nickname suggests, remains stuck in a state of arrested development, frozen in boyhood. But even the most devoted monitoring, it seems, can’t protect the figure of the child from the taint of homosexuality. Laura diligently watches over a young male child, himself a victim of some nervous disorder, dutifully at work on a painting; at the exact moment that Laura averts her gaze to read a newspaper article about Boy Barrett having committed suicide in jail, the boy artist responds by slashing at the painting, as if telepathically registering the trauma of Boy’s suicide.