by Pauline Kael
It was a bit startling to pick up an English newspaper and see that the review of Victim was entitled “Ten-letter word”—but as it turned out. The Observer was referring not to Lenny Bruce’s much publicized hyphenated word but to the simple term “homosexual,” which it appears is startling enough in a movie to make the Johnson office refuse to give Victim a seal of approval.
I suppose it’s too crude simply to say that Victim is The Mark in drag but that’s not so far from the truth. Like the man who wanted to rape a child but didn’t, the hero of Victim wants to but doesn’t make it with another guy. The lesser characters make out; they don’t have the hero’s steel will, and they are very pathetic indeed, given to such self-illuminating expressions as “Nature played me a dirty trick.” I’m beginning to long for one of those old-fashioned movie stereotypes—the vicious, bitchy old queen who said mean, funny things. We may never again have those Franklin Pangborn roles, now’ that homosexuals arc going to be treated seriously, with sympathy and respect, like Jews and Negroes. It’s difficult to judge how far sensitivities will go: Remembrance of Things Past may soon be frowned upon like Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice. Social progress makes strange bedfellows.
Victim manages to get past other censorial bodies by being basically a thriller, a fairly slick suspense story about a blackmailing ring. But it’s a cleverly conceived moralistic thriller: as the victims of the ring are homosexuals, various characters are able to point out the viciousness of the English laws, which, by making homosexuality a crime, make homosexuals the victims of ninety percent of the blackmail cases. Just about everyone in the movie has attitudes designed to illuminate the legal problems of homosexuality; without the thriller structure, the moralizing message could get awfully sticky. As it is, the film is moderately amusing.
A number of the reviewers were uneasy about the thesis that consenting adults should be free from legal prosecution for their sex habits; they felt that if homosexuality were not a crime it would spread. (The assumption seems to be that heterosexuality couldn’t hold its own in a free market.) Time’s attitude to the film is a classic example of Time’s capacity for worrying:
But what seems at first an attack on extortion seems at last a coyly sensational exploitation of homosexuality as a theme— and, what’s more offensive, an implicit approval of homosexuality as a practice. Almost all the deviates in the film arc fine fellows—well dressed, well spoken, sensitive, kind . . . Nowhere does the film suggest that homosexuality is a serious (but often curable) neurosis that attacks the biological basis of life itself.
On one page Time is worried about the population explosion, and on the next it’s upset because homosexuals aren’t reproducing. (An unwarranted assumption, by the way.)
Time should really be very happy with the movie, because the hero of the film is a man who has never given way to his homosexual impulses; he has fought them—that’s part of his heroism. Maybe that’s why he seems such a stuffy stock figure of a hero. Oedipus didn’t merely want to sleep with Jocasta; he slept with her.
There is, incidentally, a terribly self-conscious and unconvincing attempt to distinguish between the “love” the barrister feels for his wife and the physical desire—presumably some lower order of emotion— that he felt for a boy who is more interesting in every way than his wife. And I find it difficult to accept all the upper-class paraphernalia of stage melodrama; it’s hard to believe in people who live at the level on which if you feel insulted by someone’s conversation, you show him the door. A minor problem in trying to take Victim seriously even as a thriller is that the suspense involves a series of “revelations” that several of the highly-placed characters have been concealing their homosexuality; but actors, and especially English actors, generally look so queer anyway, that it’s hard to be surprised at what we’ve always taken for granted— in fact, in this suspense context of who is and who isn’t, it’s hard to believe in the actors who are supposed to be straight.
Some months ago, reviewing The Mark, I discussed the uncomfortable feeling I got that we were supposed to feel sympathetic toward the hero because he was such a pained, unhappy, dull man, and that his sexual problem was the only focus of interest in him. In Victim there is so much effort to make us feel sympathetic toward the homosexuals that they are never even allowed to be gay. The dreadful irony involved is that Dirk Bogarde looks so pained, so anguished from the self-sacrifice of repressing his homosexuality, that the film seems to give rather a black eye to the heterosexual life.
Partisan Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, Fall 1962