Monday, April 11, 2011

Victim: A Film Review and Personal Anecdote

Victim cover

I regularly think about the movie Victim, which was the first English language film ever to mention the word "homosexual". Released in 1961, it captures a time where male homosexual conduct was criminalized in the United Kingdom, meaning that rogue blackmailers were free and able to extract money and concessions from gay men. Not wishing to risk the social scandal as well as the possibility of jail, queer men paid whatever was asked and kept silent from fear. In this film, the victims of this ring are confronted with photographic evidence of their lovers and partners. Mellville Farr, a well-respected barrister (lawyer) who is otherwise happily married to a woman has, some time before, befriended a young gay man, Boy Barrett, giving him periodic rides home in his car.

This time, Barrett approaches Farr in tears. The young man has stolen a substantial sum of money to pay off the blackmailers and, when the theft is discovered, is sent to jail directly before his trial beings. Petrified of being outed, he will not say why he stole the money, though the police have their own suspicions. A photograph taken of Barrett and Farr in the car together sends the young man into a panic. Unwilling to reveal Farr's name and identity, Barrett hangs himself in his cell.

Melville Farr, the attorney, takes it upon himself to try to uncover who is behind the blackmail. He tries to speak with many victims, most of whom are completely unwilling to say much about it. In a segment that always seems to be at the back of my mind, Farr confronts several closeted gay men at an apartment. They are curious to know why he has involved himself in a matter that most heterosexuals would have avoided altogether.

Putting two and two together, one of them proclaims that Farr must himself be queer, else he would have no reason to be this persistent. For this, Farr punches him in the face, knocking the man to the ground. After apologies are made, one of the men gathered there who knows him well makes further light of a particularly suspicious college relationship between Farr and one of his close friends. The man hints strongly that the two must surely have been lovers, but Farr stonewalls. Alluding to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, another man notes that "I thought you were unconscionably put out. Now I see it's the rage of Caliban upon seeing his reflection in the glass."

In the meantime, Farr’s wife Laura finds out about Barrett’s death and confronts her husband, demanding he tell her the truth of the situation. In the heated argument that ensues, it turns out that this was not the only instance where Farr had been involved in a same-sex relationship. Before their marriage, it seems that Farr’s relationship with the college friend mentioned earlier ended when the friend subsequently killed himself shortly after the relationship dissolved. Farr told Laura about this before they married, promising that he no longer had such urges. In the most emotionally wrenching scene of the entire movie, Farr screams out that, if the truth must be known, the reason he was in the car with Barrett was because he wanted him, romantically, sexually, or otherwise. Learning of this, Laura leaves their home.

Victim has a happy ending. Eventually the blackmailers are discovered and shut down. Farr reconciles with his wife. The portrayal of bisexuality in the film leaves me a bit unsettled, because it cuts very close to my own experiences. By this I don’t mean the infidelity aspect, but I do mean the shame, guilt, and desire to refuse to acknowledge a very important part of oneself. In the film, bisexuality is unintentionally equated with some kind of weakness of character, much like an addiction or another chronic disease, one that flares up from time to time. And yet, for someone heavily closeted, as Farr was, it’s very easy to see same-sex attraction in these terms. I myself have felt similarly to this, though I have not believed that being queer meant that I was sick or somehow unhealthy, but rather that I’ve tried to suppress and bury those thoughts because they’ve often brought up painful memories and associations.

Analyzing Victim in detail shows how much progress has been made, which is worth celebrating. This film did a great deal of good in finally getting legislation passed that decriminalized homosexuality in the UK. Before, the work of blackmailers and shadowy elements was either largely unknown to the public, or rarely acknowledged because of strong social taboo. It also speaks to how restrictive, repressive legislation can lead to great evil when the organized crime that benefits from it is allowed to flourish. This was true in the United States during Prohibition, when the business of transporting illegal alcohol led to the rise of the Mob. Before we try to legislate morality once again, I hope we’ll think about the unintended consequences of our thoughtlessness.

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