June is Gay Pride Month and many of the major cities have had celebrations with parades and public parties. Often the first or second Sunday in June is what is known as Pride Day where a majority of cities celebrate simultaneously. This past Sunday, June 8th was Pride Day for Los Angeles and Philadelphia as well as several others.
The Criterion Collection has compiled 15 movies on DVD and Blu ray that are about gay characters or gay rights. If you go to Criterion's web site, the compilation is a theme called "Out at Criterion." The compilation has two films by Gus Van Sant about male youth. It has the political documentary about Harvey Milk. It also has last year's Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color about a young girl coming-of-age.
Hulu has made many of these films available online to stream. The top recommendation this past week was Victim (1961). The film from the United Kingdom, which was nominated for two BAFTA Awards, including Best British Actor and Best British Screenplay, is notable because it's the first English-language film to use the word "homosexual."
Directed by Basil Dearden and written by Janet Green and John McCormick, the story revolves around a lawyer, or what's called in the UK a barrister, who uncovers a blackmail plot where gay men are being squeezed for money in lieu of not being exposed. In this time period, homosexuality is tantamount to being illegal. Public opinion is mostly against it. It's certainly a social taboo. The barrister sets out to stop the blackmailers despite the personal harm that will come to him.
Dirk Bogarde stars as Melville Farr, the barrister in question. He's approached by a young man, a boy practically named Jack Barrett, played by Peter McEnery. Barrett is on the run from the police. He's desperate for money. Melville or Mel assumes that Barrett is trying to blackmail him. In Alfred Hitchcock fashion, Mel is pulled into a thrilling and dangerous situation because of Barrett. Excerpt, Mel is not all that innocent. Yet, arguably he is.
The brilliance of the script is how it shows the various gradations or percentages of homophobia in people, including the percentage of zero. It's aided by the stellar performances by every single actor led of course by Bogarde. There is a moment with a character stopping everything and putting on shoes and a coat that conveys the dignified horror of it all.
Bogarde is great in his portrayal of fear who has to struggle to develop the strength to face who he is. Yet, this movie doesn't end with him overcoming all his fears. He's still struggling up till the final frame. The final shot is as much a confirmation of that, as it is a confirmation of the crucible in which he finds himself. If anything, this helps to underscore the need for the culture and laws against homosexuality to change.
The cleverness of the title begs the audience to think about the idea that generally a person can't be blackmailed if he hasn't done anything wrong. Therefore, a person being blackmailed is never truly innocent or is never truly a victim. Yet, this film challenges that idea. It says that a blackmailed person can be innocent and can be a victim.
This point is brought home once we get to know the blackmailers, particularly the handsome, smiling, leather jacket-wearing and motorcycle-riding enforcer named Sandy, played by Derren Nesbitt. Sandy has no moral qualms about squeezing and torturing these gay men. He is perhaps cartoonish in that he takes so much glee in his blackmail, but one wonders if there's like a J. Edgar Hoover angle going on with Sandy.
Sylvia Syms who plays Mel's wife Laura is absolutely magnificent as well. She loves her husband, which becomes evident in the way she defends him to her brother. She's hurt by this whole situation, but, as she says at the end, she has a strength to her that allows her to persevere.
Five Stars out of Five. Originally Rated X in the UK. Re-Rated 15 in the UK. Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.
Go to Criterion.com to see the full list of gay films that have been compiled.
You can go to Hulu.com to stream some of them for free, including Je tu il elle by Chantal Akerman, Jubilee by Derek Jarman, Mala Noche by Gus Van Sant, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader and The Times of Harvey Milk by Robert Epstein.
Many of the other films can be viewed through VOD outlets like Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.