A social-problem picture couched in a thriller’s loosely donned trappings, Basil Dearden’s 1961 Victim (screening on Sunday and Monday as part of Film Forum’s Brit Noir series) is something of an inert affair, but what it lacks in narrative tension, it makes up for in topical interest. Addressing the consequences of England’s then-active, and readily enforced, Labouchere Amendment (which prohibited “gross indecency” between males and which was finally revoked in 1967) on London’s (necessarily) closeted gay subculture, Dearden’s picture plays out in a dim black-and-white underworld in which revelation means a lengthy jail sentence and blackmailers profit richly off a community’s fears.
But perhaps community is too strong a word for the handful of paranoid gay men who congregate around a single local bar and indulge in acts of petty criminality to meet the blackmailer’s fees. When one of its members — a cringing, effeminate kid known as Jack “Boy” Barrett (Peter McEnery) — gets nabbed by the cops for stealing 2300 pounds, he hangs himself rather than allow the truth to out, particularly since that would mean the revelation of his obsessive, though long-since terminated, affair with rising-star barrister, Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde). At the risk of losing his career and facing jail time of his own — a risk made palpable when the blackmailers tag his garage door with the public-outing graffiti “Farr is Queer” — the lawyer sets about busting up the ring and bringing the gay-baiting criminals to justice.
As Farr makes his way across the city, he uncovers a whole spectrum of attitudes toward homosexuality, ranging from a bartender’s labeling of the practice as the “weak, rotten part of nature” to the far more sympathetic attitude of the chief investigator in the Barrett case who gives the film its title by declaring the oppressed gay man to be “more victim than criminal”. This victimhood is witnessed in the self-loathing of a poor barber who has already served four jail terms for sodomy and whose plans to skip the country are prevented by a violent assault. And it’s there above all in Farr himself, a man overcome with guilt at the price of living straight — not merely a denial of self, but the suicide deaths of two lovers. As the plot lurches along toward its conclusion — proceeding, admittedly, more by a slightly dull inevitability than much in the way of suspense — Farr emerges as something like a hero, publicly outing himself for the good of his fellow victims.