A successful barrister, Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde) has a thriving London practice. He is on course to become a Queen's Counsel and people are already talking of his being appointed a judge. He is apparently happily married to his wife, Laura (Sylvia Syms).
Farr is approached by "Boy" Barrett (Peter McEnery), a younger working class man with whom Farr has shared a romantic but non-sexual relationship. Farr rebuffs the approach, thinking Barrett wants to blackmail him about their relationship. In fact, Barrett has been trying to reach Farr to appeal to him for help because he has fallen prey to blackmailers who have a picture of Farr and Barrett in a vehicle together, in which Barrett is crying with Farr's arm around him. Barrett has stolen £2,300 from his employers to pay the blackmail, is being pursued by the police, and needs Farr's financial assistance to flee the country. After Farr intentionally avoids him, Barrett is picked up by the police, who discover why he was being blackmailed. Knowing it will be only a matter of time before he is forced to reveal the details of the blackmail scheme and Farr's role, Barrett hangs himself in a police cell.
Learning the truth about Barrett, Farr takes on the blackmail ring and recruits a friend of Barrett's to identify others the blackmailers may be targeting. The friend identifies a barber who is also being blackmailed, but the barber refuses to identify his tormentors. When one of the blackmailers visits the barber and begins to destroy his shop, he suffers a heart attack. Near death, he phones Farr's house and leaves a mumbled message naming another victim of the blackmailers.
Farr contacts this victim, a famous actor, but the actor refuses to help him, preferring to pay the blackmailers to keep his secret. Laura finds out about Barrett's suicide and confronts her husband. After a heated argument, during which Farr maintains that he has kept the promise he made to Laura when they married that he would no longer indulge his homosexual attraction, Laura decides that Farr has betrayed that promise in having a relationship with Barrett and decides to leave him.
The blackmailers vandalise Farr's Chiswick property, painting "FARR IS QUEER" on his garage doors. Farr resolves to help the police catch them and promises to give evidence in court, despite knowing that the ensuing press coverage will certainly destroy his career. The blackmailers are identified and arrested. Farr tells Laura to leave before the ugliness of the trial, but that he will welcome her return afterward. She tells him that she believes she has found the strength to return to him. Farr burns the suggestive photograph of him and Barrett.
Homosexual acts between males were illegal in England and Wales until the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which implemented the recommendations of the Wolfenden report published a decade earlier. The fact that willing participants in consensual homosexual acts could be prosecuted made them vulnerable to entrapment, and the criminalisation of homosexuality was known as the "blackmailer's charter". Homosexuals were prosecuted and tabloid newspapers covered the court proceedings. By 1960, however, the police demonstrated little enthusiasm for prosecuting homosexual relations. There was an inclination to "turn a blind eye" to homosexuality, because there was a feeling that the legal code violated basic liberties. But public opprobrium, even in the absence of criminal prosecution, continued to require homosexuals to keep their identity secret and made them vulnerable to blackmail. The film treats homosexuality in a non-sensationalised manner.
Scriptwriter Janet Green had previously collaborated with Basil Dearden on a British "social problem" film, Sapphire, which had dealt with racism against Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom in the late 1950s. After reading the Wolfenden report and, knowing of several high-profile prosecutions of gay men, she became a keen supporter of homosexual law reform. She wrote the screenplay with her husband John McCormick. Despite its path-breaking subject, it was in other respects quite traditional. Farr has not had sex with Barrett, nor with the man he loved at university. The audience is allowed just one glimpse of a photo of two heads: Farr and Barrett seen from the obverse of the print, and the screenplay underscores the fact that only Barrett's tears suggest anything untoward, along with the breaking of social taboos in that they are different classes and far apart in age. Also, the film promises that Farr and Laura will remain united and faithful to one another. As Pauline Kael wrote:
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.... 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 heterosexual life.
The language the screenplay used to describe its controversial subject attracted comment. It used "the familiar colloquial terms", wrote one reviewer without specifying them, even as he referred to "homosexuality", "the abnormality", and "the condition". The term "queer"–then a pejorative term not yet adopted by advocates for LGBT rights–is used several times in the film. "FARR IS QUEER" is painted on Farr's garage door. Farr and other characters use the term. The more polite "invert" appears as well.
When the team of producer Michael Relph and director Basil Dearden first approached Bogarde, several actors had already turned down the role, including Jack Hawkins, James Mason, and Stewart Granger. In 1960, Bogarde was 39 and just about the most popular actor in British films. He had spent fourteen years being cast as a matinée idol by the Rank Organisation. He had proven himself playing war heroes (The Sea Shall Not Have Them; Ill Met by Moonlight); he was the star of the hugely successful Doctor film series; and he was a reliable romantic lead in films like A Tale of Two Cities. He was flirting with a larger, Hollywood career by playing Liszt in Song Without End. British audiences had named him their favorite British film star for years. Bogarde was suspected to be homosexual, lived in the same house as his business manager, Anthony Forwood, and was compelled to be seen occasionally in public with attractive young women. He seems not to have hesitated to accept the role of Farr, a married lawyer with a homosexual past that he has not quite put behind him. Bogarde himself wrote the scene in which Farr admits to his wife that he is gay and has continued to be attracted to other men despite his earlier assurances to the contrary. In his first independent film project in his 34th film, he said in 1965, "For the first time I was playing my own age. At Rank, the fixed rule was that I had to look pretty. Victim ended all that nonsense." He wrote years later in his autobiography that his father had suggested he do The Mayor of Casterbridge, "But I did Victim instead, ... playing the barrister with the loving wife, a loyal housekeeper, devoted secretary and the Secret Passion. It was the wisest decision I ever made in my cinematic life. It is extraordinary, in this over-permissive age [c. 1988], to believe that this modest film could ever have been considered courageous, daring or dangerous to make. It was, in its time, all three."
Similarly, though several actresses had turned down the role, Sylvia Syms readily accepted the part of Laura, married at age 19 and childless, which required her to be at times frustrated and self-assertive and at others heroically sympathetic. Other gay cast members included Dennis Price and Hilton Edwards.
Syms later recalled that filming had to be completed in just ten days. Shooting locations included The Salisbury, a pub on St. Martin's Lane in the Covent Garden area of London. The project was originally entitled Boy Barrett and the name changed to Victim late in production. Relph and Dearden acknowledged that the film was designed to be "an open protest against Britain's law that being a homosexual is a criminal act".
Victim premiered at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square on 31 August 1961. The U.S. premiered followed at two theaters in New York on February 5, 1962.
It was the only British entry in the Venice Film Festival in 1961, where an Italian critic commented: "at last the British have stopped being hypocrites".
An official of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) had set out its view of homosexuality in film: "to the great majority of cinema-goers, homosexuality is outside their direct experience and is something which is shocking, distasteful and disgusting". Relph said that in Victim, by contrast: "What I think we want to say is that the homosexual, although subject to a psychological or glandular variation from sexual normality, is a human being subject to all the emotions of other human beings, and as deserving of our understanding. Unless he sets out to corrupt others, it is wrong for the law to pillory him because of his inversion." He said Victim was "a story not of glands but of love."
Although a number of controversial scenes were cut before the film's release during discussions with the BBFC, including scenes with teenagers. the BBFC nevertheless gave the film an "X" rating; that is, "recommended for adults only". In a letter to the filmmakers, the BBFC secretary raised four objections to the film. First, a male character says of another man: "I wanted him". Second, references to "self-control" in the revised script were omitted from the filmed discussion of homosexuality, leaving the discussion "without sufficient counterbalance". Third, the film implies that homosexuality is a choice, which "is a dangerous idea to put into the minds of adolescents who see the film". Finally, the one blackmailer who unleashes a tirade against homosexuality is so unsympathetic that the views expressed will be discredited.
In the United States, the Production Code Administration, the film industry's self-censorship board that enforced the guidelines established by the Motion Picture Production Code, denied Victim its seal of approval. A spokesperson cited the film's "candid and clinical discussion of homosexuality" and its "overtly expressed pleas for social acceptance of the homosexual, to the extent that he be made socially tolerable". He noted that the subject of homosexuality was acceptable under the recently relaxed Production Code if handled with "care, discretion and restraint". The head of the US distributor appealed the decision and announced the film would be released in February even if his appeal was denied. He described it as a "tasteful film on a delicate subject". A few years prior to the release of Victim, the filmmakers of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) had persuaded the code censors to allow their film to use homosexuality as a plot device, but only by presenting it through cryptic innuendos, and film had to illustrate the "horrors of such a lifestyle". Victim, in contrast, was deemed to be too frank and liberal in its treatment of homosexuality, and not initially approved by the censorship code. However, in 1962, the Hollywood Production Code agreed to lift the ban on films using homosexuality as a plot device. A few years later, the code itself was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America, which introduced an age-appropriate classification system for films. Initially, Victim was generally classified as an "adult" film, often with the X classification that was initially given to pornographic films. As anti-gay prejudices declined, the rating classifications for the film were also revised.
When Victim was released on VHS in the U.S. in 1986, it received the PG-13 rating. When Victim was re-released in the United Kingdom, it was reclassified with the much milder PG/12 rating.
British reviews praised Bogarde's performance as his best and praised his courage in taking on the role. A London women's magazine called it "the most startlingly outspoken film Britain has ever produced". A anonymous reviewer in The Times commented that "Victim may not say a great deal about" the related issues of the nature of 'love' and gay men's "genuine feeling" for each other, "but what it does say is reasoned and just; and it does invite a compassionate consideration of this particular form of human bondage". However the Sight and Sound reviewer, Terence Kelly saw problems with the film and wrote that Victim contains a "a tour of the more respectable parts of the London homosexual underworld, with glimpses of the ways in which different men cope with or are destroyed by their abnormality". He did comment "the film unequivocally condemns the way" blackmail "is encouraged by the present state of the law".
Bosley Crowther wrote that the film "appears more substantial and impressive than its dramatic content justifies" because "it deals with a subject that heretofore has been studiously shied away from or but cautiously hinted at on the commercial screen". It thought the script "routine" and "shoddily constructed" as drama but successful as a political argument:
[A]s a frank and deliberate exposition of the well-known presence and plight of the tacit homosexual in modern society it is certainly unprecedented and intellectually bold. It makes no bones about the existence of the problem and about using the familiar colloquial terms. The very fact that homosexuality as a condition is presented honestly and unsensationally, with due regard for the dilemma and the pathos, makes this an extraordinary film.
He qualified his praise of Bogarde's acting: "Dirk Bogarde does a strong, forceful, forthright job, with perhaps a little too much melancholy and distress in his attitude, now and again." And he summed up his mixed view: "While the subject is disagreeable, it is not handled distastefully. And while the drama is not exciting, it has a definite intellectual appeal."
Before the film was released in the US, a news report in The New York Times described Victim as a political work: "the movie is a dramatized condemnation, based on the Wolfenden Report, of Britain's laws on homosexuality."
Victim became a highly sociologically significant film; many believe it played an influential role in liberalising attitudes and the laws in Britain regarding homosexuality. It was not a major hit but by 1971 had earned an estimated profit of £51,762.
The film was released as a DVD by the Criterion Collection in January 2011. However, the release did not receive a spine number; it was instead released as part of an "Eclipse" box set.
The film was released as a Blu-ray by Network in July 2014.
The film was adapted as a novel of the same name by Arthur Calder-Marshall, who wrote under the name William Drummond. It was commissioned by the producers and was a typical way of marketing a film in the era before home video. It differed in details (Farr is Carr in the book) and sometimes characters are somewhat transformed. The novel, for example, provides a rationale for one of the blackmailer's hatred of gays, and Carr wonders if he married Laura because she closely resembles her brother, with whom Carr has long been "sentimentally in love".
In July 2017, marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, BBC Radio 3 broadcast a play by Sarah Wooley dramatizing the making of the film, with Ed Stoppard as Bogarde.