I have selected my birthday month to highlight the films of one of my very favorite screen actors of all time, Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999). We will have 4 Bogarde films over 4 weeks, but it is painful to select only four, because there are so many great performances.
Bogarde had a few brief stabs at stardom in the USA, but he was much better known in the UK. He was cut from a different cloth than most of the other great British or Irish film actors of his era, as most of the rest of them worth noting were, at least in part, Shakespearians. That number included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, and Richard Harris. Much like James Mason before him, Bogarde matured as a contract player on-screen without much stage work or Shakespeare in his background. Mason achieved greater fame in the US than Bogarde, thanks to Walt Disney (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Alfred Hitchcock (North by Northwest), but Bogarde became an international asset of the first order working with some of the greatest directors of world cinema (this month we’ll see films he made with the Italian Luchino Visconti and the German Rainer Werner Fassbinder.)
Bogarde’s first life in film was as a contract player for the Rank Organisation where he became a superstar of British film with a succession of melodrama, suspense, and war films, coming to top the polls of most popular British stars in the mid-Fifties with huge hits like his Doctor in the House comedies. However, Bogarde grew tired of all the pop fare and looked for deeper roles, one of the first of which was today’s movie, Victim.
Victim was a brave step for Bogarde. It was an open secret that he was a closeted gay, and that is probably one of the main reasons that his stardom didn’t blossom in the US, as he refused to enter into a marriage of convenience to help with studio publicity (unlike his character in Victim.) Bogarde never came out of the closet officially during his lifetime, but the fact that he was willing to play this role resonates today. The backstory in 1961 is that England and Wales were caught in a curious middle ground regarding homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report had been published in 1957 in response to several famous people being convicted, urging the decriminalization of homosexual activity between consenting adult males. But the law hadn’t been changed, leaving over 1,000 men of average age 37 imprisoned on homosexuality convictions (the law wasn’t changed until 1967 in England and Wales, and much later in Ireland and Scotland.) Thus, even though the film seems tame by today’s standards, it was scandalous in 1961. It is reportedly the first film where the word “homosexual” is uttered on screen. The film itself, and its notoriety, is said to have had some small influence on getting the law changed in 1967.
Director Basil Dearden (1911-1961) had previously directed Bogarde in The Blue Lamp (1950) when Dearden was a workmanlike director for Ealing Studios. However, Dearden’s greatest impact was with the films from 1959-1962 that he made after he left Ealing and teamed up with producer Michael Relph to make a series of films that examined problems in the London underground, including racism, inter-racial marriage, homophobia, and the lingering effects of World War II. Victim was one of these.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD