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Few Films Understand the History of Blackmail and Queer Criminalization Better than Basil Dearden’s Victim

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“Be gay, do crime.” These four short words have become the new rallying cry at Pride demonstrations, but a glance at the canon of queer film suggests you might not hear this sentiment at the cinema.  Classic films like The Children’s Hour and Suddenly, Last Summer often take up Gothic elements to convey the paranoia and sense of entrapment felt by queer characters, but their plots are focused on individual psychology rather than the detection of a crime, as are more overt crime films, such Harold Prince’s gay murder mystery Something for Everyone from 1970.

This disconnect between queer cinema and crime film might be surprising, given that, until fifty years ago, to be gay was more or less synonymous with doing crime. The famed origin story for the US gay rights movements is a police raid on a West Village dive bar in the summer of 1969. Two years prior, sexual activity between men was finally decriminalized in the UK. Sex between women wasn’t regulated with the same degree of verve, but it was the frequent subject of obscenity trials—in 1918, for instance, Maud Allan was charged with inciting a “Cult of the Clitoris” by dancing as Salome before largely female audiences in London’s music halls. Perhaps prohibitions against homosexuality meant that queer crime couldn’t be the subject of mainstream film, but a deeper dive into film history shows that this wasn’t a hard and fast rule. Case in point: Basil Deardon’s 1961 noir Victim.

Victim-Bogarde.jpgSet in London, Victim tells the story of Melvin Farr (Dirk Bogarde), a closeted barrister threatened with exposure after his e­x-lover Barrett (Peter McEnery) is arrested for stealing wages at his job. When the police discover that his flat is bare rather than abounding with purchases, they realize that Barrett had been giving the money to a blackmailer. Barrett commits suicide in his cell in order to avoid being forced to confess his relationship with Farr, but Farr’s problems don’t end there. The blackmail ring still has evidence of the affair, and the rest of the film effectively becomes a vigilante detective story in which Farr uses his legal acumen to track down the culprits. Himself a closeted gay man of considerable renown, Bogarde’s finely calibrated performance is enough to make Victim an important entry in queer film history, but that’s not the only reason I love it. Victim is much more than the story of an individual man at risk of losing his reputation. Deeply informed by the history of queer culture, Victim uses the conventions of detective fiction and melodrama to reveal how even hostile legal institutions can’t stop communities from being built.


Let’s go back in time, to when cinema was little more than a dream in the minds of ambitious photographers. In Victorian London, career criminals turned prohibitions against of homosexual activity into a business opportunity. Because of the social and legal consequences of being exposed, men who had sex with men were obvious targets for theft and extortion. An enterprising thief might pose as a potential hook-up before taking the unsuspecting man’s property. If the victim pressed charges, he risked getting into legal trouble of his own. Other apparent hook-ups threatened blackmail instead of theft, and some blackmailers forewent the scene of cruising altogether by acquiring damning evidence (like letters or photographs) and threatening to leak them if the victim refused to fulfill their demands.

The culture of blackmail lends credence to the idea that, in the nineteenth century, homosexual men were thought to be isolated deviants paranoid that law enforcement would finally catch up with them. But press coverage of cases related to blackmail also reveals a rather counterintuitive point: that London and other UK cities had a dynamic (if precarious) queer subculture. Blackmailers and thieves often found their victims by haunting the urban sites where queer men socialized and cruised: theatres, parks, and bustling thoroughfares like Piccadilly. Not only did blackmail require familiarity with the cartography of a given city’s queer subculture, but sometimes, extortionists were part of this subculture themselves. In the media circus that was the Wilde trials, the prosecution linked Wilde’s associates with a trifecta of extortionist activity, queer intimacy, and female impersonation in order to situate the defendant within a community of sexual deviants.

Blackmailers and thieves often found their victims by haunting the urban sites where queer men socialized and cruised: theatres, parks, and bustling thoroughfares like Piccadilly.

Newspapers informed readers of a barely-hidden queer subculture years before the beloved playwright entered the dock. In 1875, Yorkshire was gripped by the puzzling case of a “respectable” young man named Horace Paterson and a traveling actor named Ernest Siddons. Siddons was the plaintiff, pressing charges against Paterson for robbing him of his gold watch while walking from Scarborough’s Londesborough Theatre to Paterson’s lodgings, to which he had invited Siddons. Paterson’s lawyer relied on what we now recognize as the “gay panic” defense: Paterson and his friends attacked Siddons because he had “attempted an indecency” (The York Herald, 3 August 1875). Apparently the jury was persuaded, as they acquitted Paterson and his friends. But for anyone familiar with the history of homosexuality in Britain, the press coverage raises unanswered questions. Who was the “mutual friend” who introduced Paterson and Siddons? And if Siddons made “indecent overtures” at the theatre (The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, 21 March 1876), why did  Paterson only decide  to attack Siddons hours later? I’m inclined to conclude that Paterson and Siddons were part of the same social network—possibly linked by queerness—and that Paterson’s theft was to some degree premeditated.

Fourteen years later, another man found himself before the law because of the company he kept at the theatre. At London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, a 26 year-old “elocutionist” named Robert O’Meara was arrested after fighting with a group of young men who called him a “Mary-ann” and spewed “You dirty lot, go and wash the paint off your faces” at O’Meara’s friends (The Standard, 3 October 1889). O’Meara was vulnerable to the attack because of his apparent visible queerness, shown by both his self-presentation and choice of associates. Though technically the defendant rather than a victim of theft or blackmail, it seems that the plaintiff was himself a blackmailer. Under cross-examination, he admitted that he had previously been imprisoned “for making accusations against certain persons,” and O’Meara was subsequently acquitted (The Morning Post, 1 October 1889). Siddons and O’Meara enter the historical record because they were victims, not culprits. And though Siddons did not receive the vindication he likely hoped for, both men were free to leave the courthouse and reenter the queer communities from which they apparently came.


Soho, the historical heart of London’s queer community, features prominently in Victim. Jack Barrett works on a construction site near Victoria Station, but in the film’s opening sequence, he flees northward to seek out his friends’ aid after witnessing a police car pull up to the site office. Initially, the sequence follows the familiar rhythm of a police chase, complete with cross-cutting between the police car and a suspect on the run, but the chase loses its momentum once he arrives in Soho. Soho becomes a site of relative safety, where Barrett can pause and try to contact a barrister named Melvin Farr. After his first unsuccessful call, he hangs up the phone and walks into the main room of a pub which, thanks to the frequent deep-focus shots that place Palace Theatre recognizably in the distance, viewers later learn is just off Shaftesbury Avenue. Barrett repeats his attempt to contact Farr, at first from a phonebooth that the background presence of the Empire Theatre vividly locates within Leicester Square. He makes his final attempt, before attempting to flee England, from outside New Theatre in St Martin’s Lane. In Victim, theatres provide the kind of legibility that they did in late-Victorian London. Being a bachelor who frequented the Empire or the Palace was enough to incite suspicions of homosexuality, and in Victim, the constant visibility of London’s most recognizable theatres explicitly situates Barrett within the capitol’s premiere neighborhood for pleasure-seeking.


As the film continues, shots of Soho become a way of tracking Farr’s evolution from secretive barrister to queer advocate. Initially, Barrett’s phone calls are the only link between the scenes of queer sociability and Farr’s life within the bourgeois worlds of Temple Bar and his suburban  townhouse. By underscoring that these two men inhabit very different spaces, Dearden’s use of parallel editing raises the question of what kind of connection there could actually be between a man fleeing from the law and one working on behalf of it. But Barrett’s world and Farr’s life don’t remain separate for long. Tracing the blackmailer responsible for Barrett’s suicide requires Farr to meet the Dickensian cast of minor characters whom viewers were first saw with Barrett: his ex, a bookseller named Harold whose shop sits on St Martin’s Lane; the barber Henry, who hung out with Barrett at the pub across from his storefront; and Phip, a Chelsea car salesman who also patronizes the bar off Shaftesbury Avenue. Farr eventually tracks down the blackmailer and—caring more for justice than his own reputation—works with the police to arrest the culprit. Lying in wait, Farr and the detectives shelter beneath the marquee of the New Theatre. By the end of the film, Farr no longer lives apart from Soho’s queer spaces; instead, he follows Barrett in finding safety in them.

Because of Farr’s encounters with queer Soho, a film that starts off as a detective-centered film noir ultimately becomes a melodrama. Melodrama has somewhat of a bad reputation because its desire to identify villains and victims is thought to simplify complex realities in favor of moral clarity. But setting up an opposition between good and evil isn’t an end in itself in many melodramas; instead, it’s a means for achieving justice for those who have suffered violence, prejudice, or exploitation. Because melodramas frequently depict the state legal system as corrupt or incompetent (the 1874 play The Shaughraun is a great example), detective work is often not enough to achieve justice. Vigilante or activist methods must come into play, and Farr’s presence fulfills this need in Victim. The Fulham detective sergeant is idealistically portrayed as compassionate and anti-homophobic, but his job is still to enforce the law. As a barrister, Farr has the training to interpret the law and the prestige to advocate for changing it. He resolves to embark on this fight – but only after the queer men he has met invite him to see the law as the source rather than the solution to injustice. Speaking of “our case” and “how we are,” the barber Henry implicitly invites this self-professed friend of “Boy Barrett” to see himself as belonging to the same group of men persecuted for their natural inclinations. Calloway, a West End star also being blackmailed, pointedly asks Farr, “do you support the law?”Victim-2.jpg

Crucially, it is not only on his former lover’s behalf that Farr resolves to act. Melodramas often rely on synecdoche, using a single victimized hero and villainous pursuer to represent larger social conflicts, but Victim foregoes synecdoche altogether. By representing London’s resilient yet precarious queer community, Dearden’s film makes it crystal clear that the “victims” designated by the film’s title are plural, and that the villain is, ultimately, the law itself. Nothing in the film suggests that Farr will leave the closet for the bar off Shaftesbury Avenue, but if his advocacy succeeds, then those barroom communities will be a little more stable, less prone to the impulses of suicide and self-exile which Barrett and Henry experience.

Victim’s emphasis on community is why I love it so much and why I think it feels more resonant than more contemporary stories of homosexual blackmail like A Very English Scandal (2018), written by Russell T. Davies. In the age of prestige television, Davies has arguably become the queer screen’s leading auteur, yet his approach to depicting blackmail lacks the emphasis on community that defines his other works like Queer as Folk (1999) and It’s a Sin (2021). When Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) is placed on trial for attempting to murder his blackmailing ex-lover Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), Scott uses the witness stand to present himself as a victim of homophobia, claiming that the reason he has spoken out is because “all the history books are written and men like me are missing.” Yet Scott’s positioning of himself as the representative of a victimized community rings hollow in a series which never shows Scott cruising in Soho or socializing at a Theatreland bar. Instead, in the scenes which decouple him from Thorpe, he’s usually with female partners. There’s a lot to love about A Very English Scandal—its sleek midcentury style, its tour de force performances, its eclectic use of genre—but it’s ultimately about Englishness, not queerness. If you want to see a good story about gay crime, go stream Victim (1961). Being gay may no longer be a crime, but thanks to the ascendancy of rentier capitalism, the kind of spaces which Dearden film’s represents are still vulnerable. After you watch Victim, you’ll want to make sure they survive.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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