All sorts of reasons, but chiefly due to my interest in censorship and classification: it was the first English language film to use the word "homosexual" and it was banned in America for a year. It's an exercise in soapbox noir - one of the many 1960s films taking advantage of greater social freedoms and less restrictive censorship. Our hero - think Atticus Finch as played by Gary Cooper - is attempting to bring down blackmailers who were responsible for the death of his sort-of-boyfriend. Along the way, he meets an ever growing number of other closeted fellows being blackmailed, while all the time the noose gets tighter around his own neck.
Before the film could be made, the BBFC went through the script and removed four lines - including our hero's tame-but-still-shocking admission that he "wanted" a particular young man. Three of them later snuck back in. The internet claims the film is part of the reason public opinion changed, and parliament got moving on changing the laws which still threw people in jail - things finally got straightened out in 1967.
It's sympathies are loudly announced very early on: "Victim", of all names. Normally, that's the type of thing I couldn't stomach - and there are one or two points where characters as good as turn to the camera and present a charity appeal - but it's redeemed by being brilliant, heartbreaking and featuring the ever yummy Dirk Bogarde as an Englishman in distress. The heroism on screen is matched by the heroism of the actors and production team, for creating a potentially career-ruining piece of cinema - the list of people who turned down roles is long and legendary.
Despite its significance as a gay movie, it is perhaps most interesting for the ways it is, to modern audiences, repressed and representative of a different era. It's made very clear that Dirk Bogarde is "one of the good ones". He is linked with two men in the movie, but both are from the past: we never see him interact with them on screen. And lest our imaginations run away from us, we are also told he was as pure as ice and chaste as snow with both of them, breaking off both relationships to save himself from temptation. This would be regarded as rather a mixed message nowadays, but in context makes sense: why risk alienating your audience? Prof Dyer, who taught me last year, suggests "Victim" also refers to the gay underground as "victims" not only of blackmail, but also of their biology - and indeed, the film does reinforce the idea that the poor devils just can't help it. The idea of it being a valid lifestyle choice is a very long way off. Much of the action tellingly takes place in the West End, and I think the presentation of the Mrs deserves study. I also wonder what audience reactions at the time were like.
Enough on the background, what of the film? Heartbreaking. Soul destroyingly, life crushingly heartbreaking. And an awful lot of fun. Comes recommended.
In other news: Why have I only just heard about "The Sea Wolves"? Surely, if someone was filming Guns of Navarone - Wild Geese crossover flicks, I should have been informed?